As the revelations about the NSA’s data mining emerge, it is useful to remember that this is a continuation and expansion of activities initiated more than a decade ago.
In the wake of 9/11, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) began developing a host of new programs as part of the war on terror. Under the direction of John Poindexter, DARPA initiated a program called “Total Information Awareness.” John Markoff, New York Times, reported in November 2002:
As the director of the effort, Vice Adm. John M. Poindexter, has described the system in Pentagon documents and in speeches, it will provide intelligence analysts and law enforcement officials with instant access to information from Internet mail and calling records to credit card and banking transactions and travel documents, without a search warrant.
As one might expect, this raised grave concerns among civil libertarians and computer scientists. The Times article quoted one computer scientist who had examined the program as part of a panel of experts. She noted: “A lot of my colleagues are uncomfortable about this and worry about the potential uses that this technology might be put, if not by this administration then by a future one. Once you’ve got it in place you can’t control it.”
The Information Awareness Office responded to the negative press by changing the name of the program to the Terrorism Information Awareness Program. But, ultimately, concerns over civil liberties led Congress to terminate funding for the program in September 2003; the Information Awareness Office was closed. Yet, the Department of Defense Appropriations Act (2004) had a classified annex that maintained funding for the component technologies, stipulating that they should be used for military and foreign intelligence operations.
A series of press reports in late 2005 and early 2006 revealed that the NSA was collecting telephone and internet communication records on US citizens via AT&T (see Electronic Freedom Foundation, which filed a class action lawsuit against AT&T for its cooperation in data mining). Renewed press attention to the Total Terrorist Information Awareness Program noted that the core technologies had gravitated to the National Security Agency. As Mark Williams (MIT Technology Review) reported in April 2006, “while those component projects’ names were changed, their funding remained intact, sometimes under the same contracts.” See, also, Shane Harris, “TIA Lives On,” from National Journal (2006). Frontline did an interesting documentary on the episode entitled “Spying on the Home Front.”
As one might expect, the “warrantless wiretaps” struck a nerve. The Bush administration ended the program in January 2007. Then Senator Obama (video here) placed the program in its proper perspective:
(The Bush) administration also puts forth a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we provide. I will provide our intelligence and law enforcement agencies with the tools they need to track and take out the terrorists without undermining our constitution and our freedom. That means no more illegal wiretapping of American citizens. No more national security letters to spy on citizens who are not suspected of a crime. No more tracking citizens who do nothing more than protest a misguided war.
Presidents have changed; program names have changed. But it appears that the movement toward Total Information Awareness has continued with relatively few impediments along the way.