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Total Information Awareness

After 9/11, the U.S. government began an information stampede to collect any information that might prevent another attack. One of the most ambitious -- and controversial -- plans was a data-mining program known as Total Information Awareness, or TIA. Housed at the Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and conceived of by John Poindexter, the former national security adviser to President Reagan known for his involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal, TIA aimed to sift through vast amounts of data to find and pre-empt terrorist plots. An ensuing firestorm in the press over privacy concerns led Congress to kill TIA's funding; however the ultimate effect was to push elements of the program into other agencies, behind closed doors.


extra video 1

In this Web-exclusive video, Robert Popp, TIA's deputy director; Steve Lukasik, a former head of DARPA and a terrorist-tracking team leader on TIA; and David Holtzman, a former NSA data miner and current privacy advocate, explain the concepts behind the program, including the development of privacy protections; debate whether it could work; and lament the lack of public discussion now that elements of the program are being pursued outside of the public eye.

extra video 1

Here, Popp guides correspondent Hedrick Smith through TIA's unique pattern-based-analysis approach. Unlike traditional, follow-the-lead investigations starting with a particular suspect, pattern-based analysis begins with large populations and narrows down potential suspects based on certain criteria.

  • TIA Lives On
    In this February 2006 article, National Journal's Shane Harris details how the government moved elements of TIA to other agencies under surreptitious names.
  • Signals and Noise
    This June 2006 National Journal article, also by Harris, juxtaposes the post-9/11 journeys of Poindexter and then-NSA head Gen. Michael Hayden. "Poindexter and Hayden knew that the signals of a future attack dwelled in a sea of noise full of mostly innocent activities," he writes. "To find the enemies among us, they'd have to look, and listen, everywhere."
  • Data Mining: Federal Efforts Cover A Wide Range of Uses
    This May 2004 Government Accountability Office investigation details the who and what of the federal government's data-mining efforts. It discovered 199 federal data-mining projects; of those, 14 are counter-terrorism data-mining activities, including seven that would mine personal information. A little-noticed footnote in the report shows how the survey did not include programs at the National Security Agency or CIA; TIA, whose programs have secretly moved on to other agencies, also wasn't mentioned.

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posted may. 15, 2007

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