Pentagon Reviews Data Mining

Following a fierce outcry from Congress and private citizens over plans to build a massive data mining system.

Following a fierce outcry from Congress and private citizens over plans to build a massive data mining system—originally called the Total Information Awareness project—the Pentagon is re-examining the program and its implications.

Civil rights advocates are concerned that the system, whose effectiveness has not been demonstrated, not only could violate an individuals right to privacy but also could force enterprises to turn even-greater amounts of data over to the government.

"The government already can compel the production of data of any business records in a terrorism investigation, if its not something they can buy," said David Sobel, general counsel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, in Washington. "The concern is applying TIA-type analysis to that information."

The Department of Defense established a Technology and Privacy Advisory Committee earlier this year to consider the civil rights implications of the project, which was recently renamed Terrorism Information Awareness. TIA is the umbrella term for a group of data analysis research projects, including a system that would connect diverse databases, and what the TIA terms a "scalable social network" that would help locate individuals linked with terrorism suspects. In an uncommon open event last week, TAPAC met with both proponents of the program and those with reservations.

Civil rights advocates maintain that if history is a guide, the TIA program inevitably will balloon beyond its original purpose. Such mission creep is likely to expand the uses of the program past terrorism to the war on drugs or other high-profile criminal investigations. It is equally predictable, TIA opponents say, that the same will occur with the amount and type of data sought, likely leading to an increasing burden on private-sector database operators.

"The operators of TIA are going to have all kinds of holes in their information," said Jay Stanley, a director in the Technology and Liberty Program at the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation, in Washington. "If the system turns out not to work well, it is very unlikely the government will say, Lets shut it down."

For some technology policy experts, any risks in the program are outweighed by the terrorist threat.