Home' Technology Review : July August 2009 Contents ESSAY 69
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ects Agency's newly created Information Awareness O ce,
which was run by retired admiral John Poindexter (a former
national security advisor) and his deputy, Robert L. Popp. The
idea, which drew heavily on both men's earlier work in under-
sea surveillance and antisubmarine warfare, was to use new
advances in data mining and transactional analysis to catch
terrorists while they were planning their attacks.
One way to find submarines is to wire the ocean with lis-
tening sensors and then to try to filter the sounds of the sea to
reveal the sounds of the subs. The terrorist problem is similar,
Poindexter explained at the 2002 DARPATech conference.
The key di erence is that instead of being in an ocean of water,
the terrorists were operating in an ocean of data and transac-
tions. "We must find terrorists in a world of noise, understand
what they are planning, and develop options for preventing
their attacks," he said in his published remarks.
The approach isn't so far-fetched. Consider that the 1995
Oklahoma City bombing used explosives made of fertilizer
and fuel oil, delivered in a rented Ryder truck. One way to stop
similar plots in advance might be to look for people other than
farmers who are purchasing large quantities of fertilizers used
in making bombs---with extra points if the person (or one of
his friends) has also rented a moving truck.
That task will be made a bit easier when stores that sell
ammonium nitrate are registered with the Department of
Homeland Security (a federal law to that e ect was passed in
2007). Still: even when we have such registration, the preven-
tion of an attack using fertilizer will require real-time purchase
information from every fertilizer seller in the United States.
While I was a graduate student at MIT during the summer
of 2003, I got a job working on the TIA project, because I
thought that data mining would be a way to objectively look
through mountains of personal information without compro-
mising privacy. Congress, however, opposed TIA on the
grounds that it treated everyone in the country as a suspect, and
because it feared that a massive data surveillance system might
be used for purposes other than catching terrorists. This pros-
pect was not so hypothetical: in 1972 Richard Nixon had
ordered the IRS to investigate his political opponents, includ-
ing major contributors to George McGovern's presidential
campaign. (Many believe that opposition to TIA was also a
kind of payback against Poindexter, who had been convicted
of lying to Congress in the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s
but had his conviction overturned on appeal.) Congress
defunded the program in 2003.
TIA was never more than a research project. But other ini-
tiatives were moving ahead at the same time.
For example, in 2002 officials from the Transportation
Security Administration asked JetBlue Airways to provide
detailed passenger information to Torch Concepts, a com-
pany in Huntsville, AL, that was developing a data mining sys-
tem even more invasive than the one envisioned by DARPA.
JetBlue was eager to help: five million passenger records were
transferred. The records, which included passenger names,
addresses, phone numbers, and itineraries, were then com-
bined, or "fused," with a demographic database purchased from
a marketing services company called Acxiom. That second
database specified passengers' gender, income, occupation, and
Social Security number; whether they rented or owned their
home; how many years they had lived at their current address;
how many children they had; how many adults lived in their
household; and how many vehicles they owned.
Torch Concepts identified "several distinctive travel pat-
terns" in the data and concluded that "known airline terrorists
appear readily distinguishable from the normal JetBlue pas-
senger patterns," according to a company PowerPoint presen-
tation unearthed by travel writer and privacy activist Edward
Hasbrouck and publicized by Wired News on September
18, 2003. A media uproar ensued, but a 2004 report from the
Department of Homeland Security ultimately concluded that
no criminal laws had been broken, because JetBlue provided
the data directly to Torch and not to the federal government.
Another data fusion project launched in the wake of 9/11 was
the Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange (Matrix),
which was also shut down amid privacy concerns. According to
I believe that we will be unable to protect online privacy without a
strong electronic identity system that's free to use and backed by
the governments of the world---a true passport for online access.
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