For Your Information

If the Total Information Awareness (TIA) program scares you, you're not alone. Of course, even if it doesn't scare you, and the Pentagon has its way, you still won't be alone. That's kind of the point.

The problem is, if you're worried enough to try to find out more about this mass monitoring system, you run into a predicament: Pentagon officials want to know everything about you but they don't want you to know anything about them. Here, for instance, is what happens if you call up the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) to find out a little more than what you read in the papers. (DARPA is the agency developing the new terrorist-tracking technology.)

TAP: What are the Pentagon's plans with TIA? When does it plan to start operations?

DARPA: I can't speak to that right now.

TAP: May I schedule an interview when you can speak?

DARPA: I don't have any anticipation of doing any interviews in the near future.

TAP: May I speak with someone else?

DARPA: No one is speaking on the subject; no interviews are being done by DARPA.

TAP: Why not?

DARPA: We haven't been doing interviews.

TAP: Why no interviews?

DARPA: There's very limited information available.

Scour the sparse Information Awareness Office's Web site and you find that officials don't even know how to describe their big plans. "The term 'database' is intended to convey a new kind of extremely large, omni-media, virtually-centralized, and semantically-rich information repository that is not constrained by today's limited commercial database products -- we use 'database' for lack of a more descriptive term," the site helpfully explains. If you're into the whole brevity thing, you find that TIA officials are planning the "development of revolutionary technology for ultra-large all-source information repositories." But if the Pentagon has decided to increase the size of its panoptic infrastructure, it won't say how, when or where. All it will admit to is that "the database envisioned is of an unprecedented scale."

To be fair, it has been possible to glean a few nuggets from the media. Various news sources have speculated that TIA will eventually have access to our -- draw a deep breath here -- medical, travel, financial, educational and electronic records. A Washington Times article recently reported that DARPA released its first technologies to government agencies. And of course former Reagan lug John Poindexter -- who has had his own troubled history with collecting and disseminating information -- is going to be hosting the party. (Doesn't it seem odd to choose as the head of a top-secret information agency someone who testified that he went behind the president's back on issues of, well, intelligence and national security?)

If you turn to the FBI for more information, you find that it is a slave to the same master. "It doesn't ring a bell to me. I heard about this TIA through news accounts, but haven't heard anything about us getting anything," says an FBI spokesman. Nor does the CIA speak with a speaking voice. "You haven't seen tight-lipped until you've seen us," says a spokesman. What about the new software? "I can't confirm or deny." Future deadlines? "I am not at liberty to say at this time."

Liberty? If the Pentagon gets its way, none of us will be "at liberty" to buy a toothbrush -- pay with cash and don't tell your dentist -- without the Department of Defense knowing about it.

Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows, which is why TAP Online contacted the Cato Institute's senior fellow in constitutional studies, Robert Levy; the American Enterprise Institute's resident fellow and national-security expert Thomas Donnelly; and the deputy director of Analytic Services Inc.'s (ANSER) Institute for Homeland Security, David H. McIntyre. Not that we had any reason to believe they would be better informed, but it was worth a shot.

TAP: What do you know about TIA?

Levy: I wish I could give you some information. I can tell you what my concerns are, but frankly nobody knows what the hell the thing is.

TAP: What can you tell me about TIA?

Donnelly: Only what I've read in the papers.

TAP: Any thoughts on it?

Donnelly: I have this sinking feeling that there is more hope than thought in this. Information is not the same as intelligence . . . Just a lot of this Homeland Security stuff, it's new territory, let's put it that way. There aren't a whole lot of experts or people who really know what the hell they are doing or talking about. I would tend to be skeptical of anyone who said they had a clear understanding of what they are going to do and how they are going to do it . . . It's like learning how to swim by diving into the deep end of the pool, which may not seem like a wise thing to do.

TAP: What can you tell us about TIA?

McIntyre: This is a new area that has not drawn enough scrutiny and hasn't been explained in enough detail. I have taught in the area of information operations for a number of years. I am not sure there is anything in open source that explains to us exactly what is going on. I can't say it any better than that.

Nor can we. But that hasn't stopped TAP Online from trying to figure out how this souped-up technology might work. For instance, there is the question of Indonesia and socks:

TAP: Can TIA really stop terrorists?

TAP-friendly reporter: Sure. The best analogy I heard was if you get intelligence that 10 guys met in Indonesia and planned to attack the U.S., and you know they are going to fly to the U.S. through Singapore with one staying in Indonesia. But that's all you know. Then you plug into TIA all the people who flew from Singapore to the U.S. That's a couple thousand. Then you check out how many checked into hotels or motels. That's down to maybe 500. Then check to see how many made calls to Indonesia. Then you interview all of them.

TAP: So what's the problem?

TAP-friendly reporter: It's fucking fascist.

We recounted this example to our expert at Cato, who then provided his own scenario.

Levy: Here's another example. Say the law enforcement authorities know someone is going to be murdered tomorrow. The only info they have is that guy is going to wear one red [sock] and one blue [sock]. Very few do that, and suppose you have a database for socks. Then you've got him. The thing is, once the guys who are murderers find out there is a database, they aren't going to display the kinds of socks they are wearing anymore. You see, you end up with the terrorists learning the rules. They are not stupid -- they are not going to sit back and conform to what is required. That is a static analysis that doesn't allow for adjustment.

There's more where those kinds of conversations came from, but we'll spare you.

So next time you decide to vacation in Mexico or buy that prescription antacid your doctor recommended, remember: Your vacation destinations and medical records may now be vital national-security information. And you can feel safe knowing they will eventually be stored in Big Brother's "extremely large, omni-media, virtually-centralized, and semantically-rich information repository."

Alex Gourevitch is a Prospect writing fellow.