Honors Freshman English
18 February 2004
Privacy vs. Security: Total Information Awareness – Hot or Not?
The terrorist attacks of September 11th served as a
catalyst for development of technology to protect citizens. The most prominent
tool currently in development is the Total Information Awareness (TIA) program,
sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects
Agency (DARPA). TIA will gather extensive existing database information about
every citizen and scan it, in an attempt to find suspicious activity.
Unfortunately, the same technology gives its wielders an incredible amount of
knowledge about the private life of honest citizens. “Knowledge is power” (Clark).
To fully understand the threats that TIA imposes on citizens, one
must understand the effect it has. TIA will search existing databases and copy
the data into its own very large database. It would supplement that data with:
“...passport applications, visas, work permits, car
rentals, airline ticket purchases, arrests or reports of suspicious activities.
Agents would check financial, education, medical and housing records, and
biometric identification databases based on fingerprints, eye scans, facial
shapes, even gait.” (“Domestic Snooping”).
According to a governmental notice,
“The National Security Community has a need for a very
large scale database, covering comprehensive information about all the
potential terrorist threats: those who are planning, supporting or preparing
such events; potential plans; and potential targets. ... technologies for
automated search and exploitation algorithms...” (EPIC Analysis of Total
Information Awareness Contractor Documents)
But what are these commercial databases TIA’s developers
are talking about? As quoted from EPIC’s Privacy and Consumer Profiling,
“Profiling is the recording and classification of
behaviours. This occurs through aggregating information from online and offline
purchase data, supermarket savings cards, white pages, surveys, sweepstakes and
contest entries, financial records, motor vehicle data, phone numbers, and
credit card transactions and public records.”
After a company collects these records and sorts them, it creates a
comprehensive dossier on the individual.
Would TIA really contain information needed to find terrorists?
Professional criminals and terrorists avoid actions that would register in a database
by which they can be later tracked. For example, terrorists would use cash
instead of credit cards, or rent cars from small companies instead of large
ones. The information that is used in TIA comes from unverified sources, so it
can easily contain errors, whether intentional or not.
Let us assume that someone who works in an advertising
company doesn’t like his neighbour. Then he could enter information into a database
saying that his neighbour is making a nuclear bomb in his basement. Although
this information would be obviously false, TIA would accept it and that is bad
news for his neighbour. Terrorists could bribe such employees to modify or
erase information about them. In addition, unintentional ones would also occur
regardless of accuracy.
How probable would errors be in TIA and what would be
their effects on ordinary citizens? To find out, one can do a simple deduction.
Let us assume that each person’s file had 2000 words that would, at some point
or another, be entered manually. It is doubtful that a typist, however skilled,
could type that much data and not make a single mistake. Therefore, if a TIA
contained dossiers on all of the population of the US, about 300 million, then TIA would contain billions of such errors!
If a citizen would trigger a false alarm, he would automatically get on
“No-Fly” lists, be searched, his communication would be tapped, and his credit
line could be frozen. Not only that, but he would have no way to prove his
innocence – TIA does not provide a way to look at the data stored in its
database and make necessary corrections. Therefore, TIA wouldn’t serve its
purpose - protecting the nation against terrorism, and could potentially harm
many people’s lives because of inaccuracies.
Would law abiding citizens’ lives be affected by gathering
all this personal information? Not only is such gathering of information
unconstitutional, as it violates the fourth amendment right of unreasonable
search, and does not give the citizen the right to know what information is
contained about him, “Opt-out,” or, at least correct the information, TIA takes
the citizen’s privacy away. One can only imagine a dishonest employee with
access to TIA’s database, could sell information for $65 per million names (Privacy
and Consumer Profiling), much like is done with commercial databases today.
In Beverly Davis vs. Metromail, a large commercial profiler used prisoners to
enter personal information from surveys into a database. “This resulted in a
stalking case where a prisoner harassed a woman based on the information she
provided in a survey. She received mail from a convicted rapist and burglar who
knew everything about her...” (Privacy and Consumer Profiling). Therefore,
citizen’s rights are significantly, harmfully affected by TIA.
Overall, TIA would do more harm than good. “It offends
concepts of privacy, the presumption of innocence and the principle that people
have a right to know when, how, and by whom they are being accused.” (“Domestic
Snooping”). “As TIA’s own slogan on their long lost logo said, 'Knowledge is
power.' When you have the amount of knowledge about people’s activities that
this program would create, it increases the amount of power that the government
would have over individuals.” (Clark) Recently, both the Senate and the House of Representatives voted
to block funding for TIA, because they found DARPA’s explanation on usefulness
unsatisfactory, and the final decision lies on the White House. “But that
doesn’t mean the authorities are finished combing through the records of
Americans to expose evildoers. Some analysts think bits of TIA still exist on
the covert, “black” side of the Pentagon’s ledger.” (Schachtman).
Anonymous. “Domestic Snooping.” The Charlotte Observer. 27
May 2003. 2 February 2004
Clark, Drew. “Defence, Justice Report on Surveillance Activities.” Government
Executive Magazine 28 May 2003. 4 February 2004
EPIC Analysis of Total Information Awareness Contractor Documents. February 2003. 2 February 2004
Privacy and Consumer Profiling. 5 November 2003. 2 February 2004
Shachtman, Noah. “The Bastard Children of Total Information
Awareness.” Wired Magazine. 2 February 2004. 15 February 2004