by Ben Worthen

Data Privacy: The U.S. Defense Department’s Total Information Awareness Program

Apr 15, 20032 mins

The most concrete manifestation of the new detect-and-deter approach was the Department of Defense’s Total Information Awareness program, a data-mining initiative headed by former National Security Adviser John Poindexter. As originally conceived by Poindexter, the program would have sorted through everything from grade-school report cards to medical records to video rentals in an effort to spot potential terrorists before they strike.

Congress, however, put the kibosh on Poindexter’s grand vision, limiting the scope of the program strictly to noncitizens. Americans will not be subjected to the data-mining program, whose logo?a pyramid topped with a giant eyeball watching the world?went along well with its Orwellian name.

The citizenry need not worry in any case. According to data-mining experts, technology isn’t even close to doing what Poindexter and the Defense Department want to do. Given today’s state-of-the-art technology, it is hard enough to mine two databases simultaneously, let alone the tens, hundreds or thousands that the program hopes to search. Then there is the issue of teaching the software what to look for?even data-mining programs based on artificial intelligence have to be told what patterns to search for. It took credit card companies decades to develop the algorithms they use to detect fraud. The government faces an even greater challenge trying to understand the behavior patterns of terrorists?particularly given the small sample size from which to learn. So far one of the only distinct transactional similarities among the 19 Sept. 11th hijackers is that they all bought a lot of pizza using credit cards.

“Even under a nearly perfect system you get false positives,” says Larry Ponemon, head of the eponymous Ponemon Institute, a privacy and data protection think tank. “That’s where you infringe on people’s privacy and maybe their civil rights. You can’t have the convenience [of total awareness] without expanding the probability of a false positive.” And the possibility that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people may be falsely accused of terrorism.