New ACLU Report Specifies Questions Needing Answers About Total Information Awareness Cyber-Surveillance System

May 16, 2003 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – In anticipation of the impending deadline for the Pentagon’s required report to Congress on its Total Information Awareness (TIA) super-surveillance system, the American Civil Liberties Union today released its own report posing a series of questions that need to be answered before Congress can make an informed decision on whether to continue funding the hi-tech spy program.

“”The Pentagon’s report will not be complete unless it comes completely clean about the capabilities, effectiveness, potential for misuse, and impact on privacy that this program would have,”” said Barry Steinhardt, Director of the ACLU’s Technology and Liberty Program, which authored the report. “”We don’t see how this massive data-mining system could even work. Government boondoggles don’t make us safer.””

The release of the ACLU’s document comes shortly before the Department of Defense is required to submit a report to Congress mandated three months ago by legislation, introduced by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and passed unanimously as an amendment to an omnibus spending bill, which stopped development of the system unless the Pentagon provided lawmakers a report disclosing specific details about how TIA would be used.

The main points that the ACLU report contends the Pentagon must address include:

  • How Americans can remain free when their every transaction is opened up to potential government scrutiny;
  • How the system will be effective in the face of a false positive rate that even under the most optimistic assumptions will reach crippling levels, and other problems;
  • The TIA’s technological capabilities, including whether it could work with one giant, centralized database, and whether there would be any limit to the number of databases to which it could connect;
  • Whether the system will be able to do true data-mining, or only more limited “”query-based”” searches;
  • Why it makes a difference, as the government has been suggesting, that the TIA database would be distributed rather than centralized;
  • How the bedrock American principle of “”individualized suspicion”” will be maintained in the face of a system designed to guess about who might be a suspect; and,
  • How TIA is likely to evolve over time given the well-established historical tendency for such programs to expand once they are established.

“”Americans and their representatives in Congress deserve to know just what it is they’re signing up for if they decide to let this program go forward,”” said Jay Stanley, Communications Director of the Technology and Liberty Program.

The transactional data that the Pentagon itself acknowledged planning to mine includes financial, travel, education, and housing records, as well as medical histories and “”communications.”” Regardless of the system’s potential effectiveness in catching terrorists, which is disputed by the ACLU and – significantly – many technical experts, the prevailing public concern is that TIA, as initially envisioned would undoubtedly be, as conservative columnist William Safire called it, a “”super-snoop’s dream.””

The ACLU’s report on the TIA program can be found at:

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