Thursday, July 10, 2003
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Big Brother is tracking you

Devangshu Datta
Published : July 10, 2003

Anna Kahn was a 24-year-old Wall Street finance professional. She is now Anna Hahn.

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 industry.

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 false.

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 ( edu/) has been overwhelmed by traffic.

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 also logged.

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.

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