A few items at the local Wal-Mart find their way into your basket Ė a
computer hard drive, a wrench, a discounted Halloween mask, a gallon of
lighter fluid, and a CD of The Coupís album Party Music. You look in your
wallet. No cash. You pay with the ATM card. The bored woman at the
register asks for your zip code, and, distracted, you give it to her.
Wal-Martís streaming data secrets your purchase data to Arlington,
Virginia, where it hooks up with a speeding ticket you got at the Canadian
border last week and your subscription to The Nation. Next thing you know,
two FBI agents are at your door with probable cause to sift through your
belongings. They find a small bag of pot your old roommate left behind and
a copy of the book "Bomb the Suburbs." Your patriotism is suddenly
questioned at headquarters.
scenario is being painted by even those only moderately fearful of how the
new Total Information Awareness program under Defense Advanced Research
Projects Agency (DARPA) will work with the new, encompassing, Homeland
Security Act. TIAís intended purposes is to catch potential terrorists
before they strike. While the moderately fearful have their point,
computer-savvy techies say this scenario isnít likely to happen Ė yet.
"Itís the Three Stooges Go to Data Mining School," says Paul Hawken,
environmental/capitalist and chair of Groxis, a data mining software
"The good news is Americans donít have much to fear soon," Hawken says.
"It will take 10 years to get going." In addition, "the brilliant,
cutting-edge technology companies wonít touch this," he says. "DARPAís
going to get the second-rate companies."
Those companies, like IBM that Hawken calls "second rate," have
repeatedly received government contracts leading to billions of dollars
worth of technology that doesnít work. IBM, for instance, wasted much of a
$15 billion contract on upgrading the nationís aviation system a decade
In late November, Hawken was approached by DARPA with a request to
allow the military to license Groxis. Hawken said no. As far as he knows,
his company is the only one to publicly decline the millions of dollars
involved with licensing data mining software to the government for Total
"We got a lot of e-mails from companies Ė even conservative ones Ė
saying, ĎThank you. Finally someone wonít do something for money.í"
But the rest of those companies, the IBMs of the nation, will be happy
to go along with DARPAís plan. "All those vendors whose stock has crashed
in the last few months are rubbing their hands at the tons of pork," said
Cory Doctorow, the Electronic Frontier Foundation outreach coordinator.
So far, a traditional technology company, Booz Allen Hamilton, has been
awarded a contract by DARPA to start technology integration. Telcordia, a
communications company and Cycorp, which has a sort of artificial
intelligence product that sorts questions and answers have also been
hired, according to DARPA spokesperson Jan Walker.
While those companies might waste taxpayer money, they may still be
able to get the job done. Doctorow and others believe the data mining
necessary to compile dossiers on the public is feasible. DARPA doesnít
even need supercomputers. It can set up a basement full of white box PCs
to crawl through incoming data.
There are two main technical questions. Can software make sense of it
in a way for government agencies to use without being overwhelmed by
nonsense and can the vast numbers of sources of data agree on ways to talk
in the same language?
Itís not simple, but itís also not very high-tech, according to
Doctorow. "Itís like how to get Sears and Macys to agree on a Dewey
Yet, government isnít good at figuring out even the most basic
technology. One of the first aspects of the Homeland Security Act to be
made public was that the 22 agencies involved will have to set up a common
e-mail system so they can talk to each other Ė presumably they cannot do
so now and have yet to discover Yahoo! groups.
According to DARPA, after the e-mail system is in place, the plan is to
gather "transactional data" on individuals, including information about
their financial, educational (such as high school permanent record),
travel, medical, veterinary (terrorist cats?), transportation, housing and
But even if they are able to pull all this information together,
compiling data in one massive center as DARPA plans is unlikely to catch
the intended terrorist targets. The military and the big technology
companies expected to sign onto the Total Information Awareness program
are structured in a way that could well thwart the initiative.
"The response of this administration is to build a new hierarchy, when
the [model] is the flat framework of al Qaeda," said Paul Saffo, director
of the Institute for the Future and a technology sage. Because al Qaeda
works in small relatively independent cells, it's unlikely TIA would
uncover an entire network.
Putting all that information in one hierarchical, centralized situation
could very well backfire, especially if more and more people start getting
knocks on their doors. Many Americans are used to being able to do as they
please and while they seem relatively complacent now, if all this data
gathering starts to impinge on their daily lives, they could start holding
Hawken expects TIA to have an enormous error rate, one that Americans
will not endure. "The error rate is ten to the third power. That means for
every person TIA identifies who might possibly have information leading to
something that could have the potential to affect security, itís
mistakenly identifying at least a thousand who are totally innocent. The
error rate comes from the problem with inferring meaning from the
information, not the tracking of the information itself.
"Yes, all this data can be mined. But then what?" Hawkins asks. "You
have to sort, analyze and make sense of it. I donít think anyone knows how
itís going to work."
That doesnít mean the military canít pull it off. TIA was granted $137
million to spend in the next fiscal year and expects to have a research
prototype in five years, according to DARPAís Walker.
Much has been made of the director of the Total Awareness Program, John
Poindexter, whose reign as President Ronald Reaganís national security
adviser was most noted for his hip-deep involvement with Iran Contra. He
was convicted, and his conviction was overturned. Saffo calls him
"extraordinarily smart" though "vile." "But," Saffo says, "he knows his
"There are ways in which technology can help preserve rights and
protect peopleís privacy while helping to make us all safer," said
Poindexter in a speech this summer. He gave no specifics.
If the government can pull off the technology, at its very core, the
technology has to have a set of criteria that defines potential terrorism.
Itís doubtful that a chief executive officer of a corporation that
pollutes drinking water, for example, will be considered a terrorist. The
set of criteria will be based on the current governmentís ideology. This
means that basically anything that questions the government or government
policies can be programmed into the computer to turn up a terrorist.
Hawken asks, "Is a terrorist someone who opposes a proto-fascist
government in D.C.?" If he asks the question, does he get put on the list?
In any event, Hawken and others say that anyone who actually is
a threat to U.S. security can easily learn to evade any Total Information
Net. For at least the next five to 10 years, while the government fumbles
with its computers, so can the rest of us.
J.A. Savage is a regular AlterNet contributor and former tech
Note: The Information Awareness Office Web Site is at:
that as of January 9th, the "Eye in the Triangle" Logo and much of the
original information has been removed from the site.