TIA: Terrorism Information Awareness or Totally InAppropriate?

In the wake of the September 11 attacks, Americans have been willing to concede some personal freedoms for the sake of national security. Three years ago, few would have waited barefoot in airport security lines, taken care to put tweezers or nail clippers in checked baggage, or worried whether hand lotion would cause chemical swabs to come back positive. But where should the line between maintaining national security and infringing on personal freedoms be drawn? The Department of Defense has recently added some fuel to the fire in this perpetual debate.

John Poindexter, of Iran Contra infamy, spearheaded a security program through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) entitled Total Information Awareness (TIA), now re-named Terrorism Information Awareness, which began garnering media attention in late 2002.

The TIA program is essentially a research and development program with the goal of better accumulating and managing information on potential security threats. The program seeks to allow counter-terrorism agencies within the government to access information gleaned by others; it is a massive attempt at governmental collaboration. To show possible benefits of TIA, Robert Popp, deputy director of the DARPA Information awareness agency has used the following illustrative example: "Two of the nineteen hijackers [in the September 11 attacks] were on the State Department/INS watch list; these same two hijackers were also sought by the CIA and FBI as suspected terrorists. The problem is, the data exists in different databases and are managed by different agencies." TIA is based on the assumption that if agencies know who other agencies are looking at, it is easier to pinpoint massive threats to national security.

So TIA was developed in the hopes that information can be better used in the future to avoid such catastrophic events as the World Trade Center attack. And the backlash began almost immediately. Originally, the TIA used a pyramid with an all-seeing eye as its logo, along with the slogan "scientia est potentia" (knowledge is power). The glaring Orwellian implications led to a variety of satirical responses. Richard Gingras launched "Buy a Thong for Freedom" on CafePress.com where he sold t-shirts, mugs, underwear, and other items bearing the logo. He vowed to donate all proceeds to the ACLU, which has been outspoken in criticizing aspects of the program. Regarding the logo, Gingras has said, "You could get the best satirists working in American humor, and I'm not sure they could come up with anything better than that."

TIA pulled the logo within a matter of days and the name change was also made in a PR effort to change public opinion of the project. A news outlet reported back in November of 2002 that the program would allow the government to regularly update dossiers on any or every American. Although TIA has been steadfast in its defense against the claim, they changed the "T" from "Total" to "Terrorism" in an attempt at clarity. Another likely PR boost came with the announcement that Poindexter had resigned, effective at the end of August 2003; Popp now serves as acting director.

Popp has said that TIA will not collect "transactional" data on Americans, which is prohibited by law. He has defined transactional data as buying airline tickets to possible attack sites, obtaining materials that may be used to make bombs, and other similar activities. What remained unclear was exactly what sort of information TIA is allowed to use.

TIA has not been terribly specific about exactly what data they plan to cross-reference or mine and what technology they will use to do so. Their site gives examples such as: "advanced collaboration and decision-support tools that give counter-terrorism analysts, operations, and policy personnel innovative capabilities to share and analyze information" or "developing technology to enable the automated discovery, extraction, and linking of data markers indicative of terrorist activities." But what does that mean?

This lack of explanation has led other groups to join the ACLU in fighting the TIA. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has been vocal in questioning the methods to be employed by the TIA. Lee Tien, senior staff attorney for the EFF says, "my one greatest fear is that the whole thing is being done without serious meaningful attention to privacy and civil liberties." He goes on to say, "One of the key issues is ‘can we tell if they're really being responsive to public concerns about privacy, or just paying lip service?'"

"No American's privacy has changed because of TIA," says DARPA spokesman Jan Walker. "TIA is not creating dossiers on Americans. All of the real data used in TIA experiments is foreign intelligence and counter-intelligence data." Walker goes on to say that, "It is the very same data the Intelligence Community already has and only professional intelligence analysts have access to the data, and they operate in accordance with very specific laws and regulations."

But even Congress has questioned whether TIA is encroaching too far on civil liberties. In January 2003, the Senate decided by a voice vote not to fund the TIA because it constituted government snooping. In July, the Senate's version of the 2004 defense appropriations bill—reaching $368 billion—specifically denied any funding for TIA, but the House's version did not include such a provision. As press time, the two bills have yet to be reconciled, but if funding is indeed denied, this could be the end of TIA.