Anna Kahn was a
24-year-old Wall Street finance professional. She is now Anna
The frequent flyer changed her name, after being pulled out
of many queues in airport security and, “having people shining
x-rays up my skirt”. Her original name, or any combination of
the letters in it, sets off alarm bells in the US Terrorism
Information Awareness (TIA) database, which vets individuals
for links to terrorism.
The TIA runs data from multiple databases through a sieve
called the Evidence Extraction and Link Discovery module. A
Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) project, the
TIA is part of the Homeland Security technology suite. It is a
tour de force of relational databasing.
DARPA cited the following scenario: A group is travelling
together, renting trucks and buying fertiliser that could be
used to make explosives. This might mean a truck-bombing
attack ala Tim McVeigh in Oklahoma. (It could also be an
agricultural commune going about its business.)
Accessing credit-card records, car rental/sale records and
airline itineraries, TIA’s Link Discovery program would flag
the terrorists (and the farmers). The TIA is a suite of
information technologies that peruses data, accepts
contributions, and post alerts. It has been used to facilitate
detainee interrogation at Guantanamo, Cuba.
TIA accesses all personal information on record, allowing
users to sort data that would otherwise be unusable. Lawsuits,
divorce citations, special interests, hobbies, reading and
viewing habits, SSN and employment records, religious and
political affiliations, tax records; all grist to the evidence
extraction mill. TIA also encourages anonymous “snitches”;
whistle-blowers are welcome.
TIA integrates with other Homeland Security IT including
border-control systems, FBI criminal-profiling databases and
medical bio-terrorism detection systems. Much of this,
including TIA, could be adapted for commercial use by
In a country with a tradition of civil liberty, TIA faces
challenges. Opposition ranges from the left-wing American
Civil Liberties Union to the right-wing American Conservative
Union. The libertarian contention: TIA could be misused to spy
on the blameless, data in commercial/government databases is
often incorrect and every false positive leads to harassment.
It’s also not clear what, if any, recourse, an individual
implicated by false information has, under TIA. In TIA files,
an allegation or “snitch” is not deleted, even if proven
In order to reveal the implications, the MIT’s Media Lab
has unveiled a mirror project called the GIA or Government
Information Awareness plan. The focus : the individuals, who
run US government, at all levels from local civil servants to
Congress members and White House appointees.
GIA is inspired by TIA and possesses similar
data-structures and flexibility, allowing incorporation of
multi-sourced data. Data is classified as either an “entity”
or piece of information, or a “link” connecting entities. The
site (http://opengov.media.mit. edu/) has been overwhelmed by
The programs are open source and collaborators are
mentioned along with source databases. Using GIA, anyone can
tag an US official; learn their personal financial details,
voting records, public speeches, education and career graphs,
attendance records, property ownership record, marital records
and so on.
GIA also allows people to “snitch”, while retaining their
anonymity, and being identified through anonymous
password-protected codenames. “Snitches” are retained on file
as in TIA. Unlike TIA, the individual targeted is contacted
and asked to respond to any allegations and the denials are
Big Brother may soon be here given the rapid wiring up of
Indian government departments and commercial databases. The
home ministry recently set up new intelligence-gathering
centres at Srinagar, Hyderabad, Guwahati, Mumbai and Kolkata
to gather information about suspected terrorists.
Ahmedabad, Surat, Rajkot and Indore are likely to get such
centres as well. They are designed to spy on terrorists and
gather information that can prevent terrorist acts.
Unfortunately, nobody is likely to ask searching questions
about invasion of privacy. Nor is it likely that the IITs will
set up a mirror centre for logging similar information about
individuals in the Indian government.