Massive database dragnet explored

San Jose Mercury News 11/21/02: Jim Puzzanghera

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WASHINGTON - Its name is Orwellian, its head has a notorious past, and its goal has civil libertarians and computer-privacy advocates in a frenzy: Let the government troll vast databases of credit-card transactions, medical records and other personal information for signs of terrorist activity.

As more is becoming known about the Total Information Awareness System, a Pentagon research project headed by former Iran-Contra figure John Poindexter, more people are becoming alarmed about the implications.

The Pentagon tried to allay those concerns Wednesday, stressing that it is only ``an experimental prototype'' and that Poindexter's involvement is limited to the research. But Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said she plans to introduce legislation to ensure that the project does not infringe on the privacy rights of Americans.

``This is a panoply, which isn't carefully conscribed and controlled, for a George Orwell America,'' Feinstein told the Mercury News. ``And I don't think the American people are ready for that by a long shot.''

The proposed system is the brainchild of Poindexter, the director of the Information Awareness Office of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon's risk-taking research division that created the Internet.

Poindexter declined to be interviewed, but at two defense-technology conferences in recent months he has outlined how the system would sift through a variety of commercial and government databases in the United States and abroad to identify terrorist plans.

``We must find the terrorists in a world of noise, understand what they are planning and develop options for preventing their attack,'' Poindexter said at a conference in Anaheim in August in which he said the system would also ``ensure that the private information on innocent citizens is protected.''

But the specter of the government analyzing records of everyday activities has conjured images of the all-knowing Big Brother government of Orwell's novel ``1984.'' Earlier this week, more than 30 civil liberties groups wrote to Senate leaders, urging them to stop further development of the system.

``This is a plan for a very ambitious, comprehensive, all-encompassing surveillance system,'' said Lee Tien, an attorney with the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation. ``There have been plenty of abuses of power with much smaller scale systems. This one would be enormous.''

With controversy swirling around the project, Pete Aldridge, the Pentagon's undersecretary for technology, said Wednesday that the research is being done largely with ``fabricated'' data to avoid privacy issues. If the system proves feasible it would be used by intelligence and law enforcement agencies in conjunction with existing laws to protect individual privacy.

``If you were a terrorist, and you wanted to conduct a terrorist act, you would undertake certain kind of transactions to do that. One, you have to enter the country, and you would probably . . . get a driver's license or you would maybe take lessons in airplanes,'' Aldridge said. ``The bottom line is this is an important research project to determine the feasibility of using certain transactions and events to discover and respond to terrorists before they act.''

He also stressed that Poindexter's involvement ends with the research.

Poindexter was national security adviser to former President Reagan from 1985-1986 and was a key figure in the covert plan known as Iran-Contra to trade weapons for the Americans that Iran held hostage. He was convicted of five felony counts of lying to Congress, destroying official documents and obstructing the congressional inquiry into the affair. His convictions were overturned on appeal because testimony given by Poindexter to Congress under a grant of immunity was unfairly used against him at trial.

In the past week, editorials in the New York Times and the Washington Post have questioned the wisdom of letting Poindexter direct the project. But Aldridge said Poindexter approached the Pentagon with the idea after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

``Once the tool is developed, John will not be involved,'' Aldridge said. ``But it's his enthusiasm and his volunteering of this idea, which is why we developed and started to fund it.''

The program will receive $10 million in the Defense Department's 2003 budget and its implementation is at least ``several years away,'' Aldridge said. But some experts said the system may not be feasible.

A study released last month concluded that such data-mining projects were not promising, said Philip Zelikow, the executive director of the Markle Foundation Task Force on National Security in the Information Age, which conducted the study.

``There is about this a certain aura of the search for the philosophers' stone, if we can just find the magic algorithm and get access to enough databases the truth will emerge,'' said Zelikow, a former National Security Council staffer.

Still, Jerry Berman, executive director of the Center for Democracy & Technology, said now is the time for Congress to consider the implications of such a project because there are few limitations on government access to commercially available databases. And other database-mining initiatives are under way by the FBI and the new Transportation Security Administration.

``We are going into uncharted water,'' he said. ``The research project needs to be watched.''

That's what Feinstein said she intends to do. She talked with Poindexter on Tuesday, and Pentagon officials are slated to brief Senate staffers on the project today.

``My belief is it's one thing to require people who sell explosive materials . . . to require them to provide the government with that information,'' she said. ``It's another thing to look through everybody's credit-card purchases, finances, loans, everything else to see if they've bought any of this stuff.''


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