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[infowar.de] WPO 12.11.02: U.S. Hopes to Check Computers Globally
U.S. Hopes to Check Computers Globally
System Would Be Used to Hunt Terrorists
By Robert O'Harrow Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 12, 2002; Page A04
A new Pentagon research office has started designing a global
computer-surveillance system to give U.S. counterterrorism officials access
to personal information in government and commercial databases around the
The Information Awareness Office, run by former national security adviser
John M. Poindexter, aims to develop new technologies to sift through
"ultra-large" data warehouses and networked computers in search of
threatening patterns among everyday transactions, such as credit card
purchases and travel reservations, according to interviews and documents.
Authorities already have access to a wealth of information about individual
terrorists, but they typically have to obtain court approval in the United
States or make laborious diplomatic and intelligence efforts overseas. The
system proposed by Poindexter and funded by the Defense Advanced Research
Projects Agency (DARPA) at about $200 million a year, would be able to
sweep up and analyze data in a much more systematic way. It would provide a
more detailed look at data than the super-secret National Security Agency
now has, the former Navy admiral said.
"How are we going to find terrorists and preempt them, except by following
their trail," said Poindexter, who brought the idea to the Pentagon after
the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and now is beginning to award
contracts to high-technology vendors.
"The problem is much more complex, I believe, than we've faced before," he
said. "It's how do we harness with technology the street smarts of people
on the ground, on a global scale."
Although formidable foreign policy and privacy hurdles remain before any
prototype becomes operational, the initiative shows how far the government
has come in its willingness to use information technology and expanded
surveillance authorities in the war on terrorism.
Poindexter said it will take years to realize his vision, but the office
has already begun providing some technology to government agencies. For
example, Poindexter recently agreed to help the FBI build its
data-warehousing system. He's also spoken to the Transportation Security
Administration about aiding its development of a massive
In his first interview since he started the "information awareness"
program, Poindexter, who figured prominently in the Iran-contra scandal
more than a decade ago, said the systems under development would, among
other things, help analysts search randomly for indications of travel to
risky areas, suspicious e-mails, odd fund transfers and improbable medical
activity, such as the treatments of anthrax sores. Much of the data would
be collected through computer "appliances" -- some mixture of hardware and
software -- that would, with permission of governments and businesses,
enable intelligence agencies to routinely extract information.
Some specialists question whether the technology Poindexter envisions is
even feasible, given the immense amount of data it would handle. Others
question whether it is diplomatically possible, given the sensitivities
about privacy around the world. But many agree, if implemented as planned,
it probably would be the largest data-surveillance system ever built.
Paul Werbos, a computing and artificial-intelligence specialist at the
National Science Foundation, doubted whether such "appliances" can be
calibrated to adequately filter out details about innocent people that
should not be in the hands of the government. "By definition, they're going
to send highly sensitive, private personal data," he said. "How many
innocent people are going to get falsely pinged? How many terrorists are
going to slip through?"
Former senator Gary Hart (D-Colo.), a member of the U.S. Commission on
National Security/21st Century, said there's no question about the need to
use data more effectively. But he criticized the scope of Poindexter's
program, saying it is "total overkill of intelligence" and a potentially
"huge waste of money."
"There's an Orwellian concept if I've ever heard one," Hart said when told
about the program.
Poindexter said any operational system would include safeguards to govern
the collection of information. He said rules built into the software would
identify users, create an audit trail and govern the information that is
available. But he added that his mission is to develop the technology, not
the policy. It would be up to Congress and policymakers to debate the issue
and establish the limits that would make the system politically acceptable.
"We can develop the best technology in the world and unless there is public
acceptance and understanding of the necessity, it will never be
implemented," he said. "We're just as concerned as the next person with
Getting the Defense Department job is something of a comeback for
Poindexter. The Reagan administration national security adviser was
convicted in 1990 of five felony counts of lying to Congress, destroying
official documents and obstructing congressional inquiries into the
Iran-contra affair, which involved the secret sale of arms to Iran in the
mid-1980s and diversion of profits to help the contra rebels in Nicaragua.
Poindexter, a retired Navy rear admiral, was the highest-ranking Regan
administration official found guilty in the scandal. He was sentenced to
six months in jail by a federal judge who called him "the decision-making
head" of a scheme to deceive Congress. The U.S. Court of Appeals overturned
that conviction in 1991, saying Poindexter's rights had been violated
through the use of testimony he had given to Congress after being granted
In recent years, he has worked as a DARPA contractor at Syntek Technologies
Inc., an Arlington consulting firm that helped develop technology to search
through large amounts of data. Poindexter now has a corner office at a
DARPA facility in Arlington. He still wears cuff links with the White House
seal and a large ring from the Naval Academy, where he graduated at the top
of his class in 1958.
As Poindexter views the plan, counterterrorism officials will use
"transformational" technology to sift through almost unimaginably large
amounts of data, something Poindexter calls "noise," to find a discernable
"signal" indicating terrorist activity or planning. In addition to
gathering data, the tools he is trying to develop would give analysts a way
to visually represent what that information means. The system also would
include the technology to identify people at a distance, based on known
details about their faces and gaits.
He cited the recent sniper case as an example of something that would have
benefited from such technology. The suspects' car, a 1990 Chevrolet
Caprice, was repeatedly seen by police near the shooting scenes. Had
investigators been able to know that, Poindexter said, they might have
detained the suspects sooner.
The office already has several substantial contracts in the works with
technology vendors. They include Hicks & Associates Inc., a national
security consultant in McLean; Booz Allen Hamilton Inc., a management and
technology consultant in McLean; and Ratheon Corp., a technology company
that will provide search and data-mining tools. "Poindexter made the
argument to the right players, so they asked him back into the government,"
said Mike McConnell, a vice president at Booz Allen and former director of
The office already has an emblem that features a variation of the great
seal of the United States: An eye looms over a pyramid and appears to scan
the world. The motto reads: Scientia Est Potentia, or "knowledge is power."
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