Ms. Grow

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).

Works Cited


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