TIA Is Dead--Long Live TIA

Terrorism Information Awareness is defunded and broken up, but could breed many little TIAs

ILLUSTRATION: ALEX MURAWSKI

Terrorism Information Awareness (TIA), a U.S. defense department program to mine credit card, medical, travel, police, and other governmental data, is being disbanded. Originally called Total Information Awareness, TIA got nothing but bad press because of its Orwellian name and mission.

A joint House-Senate appropriations conference committee voted on 24 September to defund TIA through 2004, along with its bureaucratic parent, the Information Awareness Office, a branch of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) that Admiral John Poindexter had headed. But the committee allowed some programs to continue under different offices and agencies, a decision ratified on the House and Senate floors. The effect, ironically, will be to make some TIA programs less visible and less accountable.

"Killing the Information Awareness Office is a positive first step," says David Sobel, general counsel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (Washington, D.C.), "but it doesn't eliminate the government's datamining initiatives. It drives them underground."

Killing it softly

The provision defunding TIA, part of the 2004 Department of Defense budget now signed into law, allows eight Information Awareness Office programs to be continued elsewhere in Darpa. In addition, related research will be carried out by an obscure counterintelligence program known as the National Foreign Intelligence Program (NFIP).

NFIP is jointly managed by an assortment of intelligence agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the National Security Agency. Its budget is classified, as is the full definition of the work it is now authorized to develop—the committee report refers only to "processing, analysis, and collaboration tools for counterterrorism foreign intelligence." NFIP is enjoined by the new law, however, from using any of those processing, analysis, and collaboration tools domestically.

As of year-end 2002, TIA had agreed to fund 26 research projects in all, according to documents obtained earlier this year under the Freedom of Information Act by advocacy groups. The fiscal 2003 budgets for those programs, running from October 2002 through September 2003, were about US $140 million, according to a report prepared by the cyber rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation (San Francisco). The 2004 budget for all TIA programs, which are currently all at the research stage, would have been about $169 million.

Some of those programs, to the extent they have been disclosed, have not fared well in the court of public opinion. In May, the press ridiculed a $1 million Georgia Institute of Technology (Atlanta) research effort that analyzed the way people walk and tried to create unique "gait signatures" for them. Another supposedly outlandish program, LifeLog, was a multimedia superdiary that would record everything a person said and did. Both programs are now defunded.

The eight Information Awareness Office programs allowed to continue are (with Darpa's requested fiscal year 2004 budget amounts in parentheses): Bio-Event Advanced Leading Indicator Recognition Technology ($6.3 million); Rapid Analytical Wargaming ($7.5 million); Wargaming the Asymmetric Environment ($8.2 million); and five projects to translate and analyze spoken and written natural language, for a grand total of $51.2 million.

What's not completely clear is the role NFIP will play in salvaging TIA projects, or which of the many agencies that run NFIP will be involved. The FBI, for example, normally does no research of the sort that TIA sponsored.

Another place to which TIA-like research could move is a new Darpa-like entity, the Department of Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency. With a hefty first-year budget of $800 million and a deputy director who held that title at Darpa, the new Arpa on the block could provide a second string in the bow of any military-related research looking for a sponsor.

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