New Total Information Awareness project will sniff company databases for terrorists.
Should Uncle Sam know as much about you as MasterCard does?
In essence, that may be the key question posed by the Pentagon's new Total Information Awareness (TIA) project.
This effort - whose Latin motto translates as "knowledge is power" - aims to create huge databases that sift through the purchases, travel, immigration status, income, and other data of hundreds of millions of Americans. Its purpose: to sniff out the terrorists among us.
Credit-card companies already carry out such paper profiling as an antifraud device, say proponents of the new effort. That's why you get a call when you suddenly start spending lots of money far from home, or exceed your daily allotment of transactions. Using such techniques to prevent another Sept. 11 may thus be simply a natural progression in technology.
But the recent theft of thousands of identities from commercial databases points out what can happen when such data falls into the wrong hands, say critics. And the federal government is not American Express. It has far greater power, and citizens thus need to assiduously protect their privacy from its snooping.
"Data files that become available [to the government] are likely to be used beyond their initial purpose, and we need to guard against that somehow," says Robert Pfaltzgraff, professor of international security at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Mass.
A prototype of TIA - funded at $10 million this fiscal year and expected to grow in the next few years - is now being set up, using mostly fabricated information, although some "real" data will be used from public records.
"There are three parts to the TIA project," says Edward Aldridge, undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics.
The first part of the technology is voice recognition, which would include sifting through electronically recorded transmissions and provide rapid translations of foreign languages.
The second part is to develop a tool that would discover connections between transactions, such as passports, airline tickets, rental cars, gun or chemical purchases, as well as arrests and other suspicious activities.