Privacy SOS

Part I. Introduction and History of Spying

The Road to 9/11 and Total Information Awareness

Within a few weeks of 9/11, former Navy Admiral John Poindexter was stationed at DARPA, the Pentagon’s research arm, and given the funds to develop a program he had been thinking about ever since he went to the White House twenty years earlier to modernize its technology. “Total Information Awareness” (TIA), whose logo featured a pyramid with an all-seeing eye, would use powerful computers to search all electronic data compiled about everyone everywhere to hunt for hidden patterns that could indicate terrorist activity.

TIATIA faced intense opposition after it was publicly unmasked late in 2002. After a public outcry forced Congress to stop funding the DARPA program, it secretly earmarked funds to shift TIA research to the NSA. In subsequent years, the “total information awareness” approach to fighting terrorism – and soon crime itself – would secretly transform both intelligence-gathering and policing, as a new architecture of surveillance was erected to protect homeland security and facilitate the hunt for pre-crime. The quantity of data that law enforcement and federal intelligence agencies are newly able and encouraged to collect, share and store indefinitely opens the door to privacy violations and the very real possibility that innocent people will be considered suspects without having done anything wrong and without being able to clear their names.

Was such a response to 9/11 necessary, or even advisable? Particularly striking is the extent of the disconnect between the litany of mistakes that led to the 9/11 attacks and the “fix” represented by applying advanced technology to massive databases to detect suspicious patterns and people.

It is no secret that the CIA, NSA and FBI bungled a multitude of opportunities to foil the 9/11 plot. An often astonishing list of intelligence failings is documented in a 900 page Joint Intelligence Committee report, a 400 page report by the Justice Department’s Inspector General and a secret report by the CIA with a redacted executive summary. The failure to protect the country was caused by human blunders, poor judgment, communication lapses, bureaucratic turf wars, insufficient training in legal procedures, simple incompetence, too few skilled analysts and language specialists, more information than could be processed in a timely fashion.

More information is not necessarily better information. But this lesson has not been learned. The TIA approach to surveillance has led intelligence agencies to drown in data, much of it flawed when it was entered into databases, and much of it irretrievable because of the bigger flaws in technology systems that are supposed to make it “simple” to deliver actionable intelligence.

It is to the components of the emerging surveillance state that we now turn.

© 2023 ACLU of Massachusetts.