[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]
[infowar.de] Wired 22.03.07: Son of TIA: Pentagon Surveillance System Is Reborn in Asia
Son of TIA: Pentagon Surveillance System Is Reborn in Asia
03.22.07 | 12:00 PM
Nearly four years after Congress pulled the plug on what critics assailed as
an Orwellian scheme to spy on private citizens, Singapore is set to launch
an even more ambitious incarnation of the Pentagon's controversial Total
Information Awareness program -- an effort to collect and mine data across
all government agencies in the hopes of pinpointing threats to national
The Singapore prototype of the system -- dubbed Risk Assessment and Horizon
Scanning, or RAHS -- was rolled out early this week at a conference in the
Southeast Asia city-state. Retired U.S. Adm. John Poindexter, the architect
of the original Pentagon program, traveled to Singapore to deliver a speech
at the unveiling, while backers have already begun quietly touting the
system to U.S. intelligence officials.
In 2003, plans for Total Information Awareness, or TIA, sparked outrage
among privacy advocates. TIA was one of several programs run out of the
Information Awareness Office at Darpa, the Pentagon's advanced research
projects agency. Fueling public indignation was news that Poindexter,
President Reagan's national security adviser and a key figure in the '80s
Iran-Contra scandal, was in charge of the office.
Facing an avalanche of bad publicity, Poindexter resigned in August 2003.
Congress pulled funding for the program, and TIA and related programs were
either terminated or moved to other agencies. The Information Awareness
Office was closed.
But Poindexter's vision never lost currency among advocates of data mining,
particularly in Singapore, a country that mixes elements of democratic
governance with authoritarian rule.
While different in design from TIA, the RAHS system shares some intellectual
roots with the doomed Darpa effort. The two principal consultants for RAHS
are John Peterson, of the Virginia-based Arlington Institute, and Dave
Snowden, who was previously supported by Poindexter's office within Darpa,
and is now the chief scientific officer of Cognitive Edge, a Singapore-based
Peterson, a futurist, describes RAHS as a system that monitors multiple
feeds of data -- both open and classified -- to detect possible threats.
"Essentially it's a strategic tool that ties together every one of the
agencies in a government into a large network that is constantly scanning
the horizon looking for weak signals that point toward the possibility of a
significant event that would have important implications for Singapore," he
Snowden's work at Cognitive Edge concentrates on automated software to
detect such "weak signals" that would normally be passed over by human
analysts. "Instead of having analysts trawl through huge amounts of data to
decide what it means, the data is tagged very quickly, then they decide what
the patterns in the metadata mean," said Snowden.
While terrorism is a driving factor for RAHS, it was the SARS epidemic
-- which crippled Singapore's economy -- that prompted interest in the
technology, according to Patrick Nathan, deputy director of the Singapore
National Security Coordination Center. "We are studying the application of
the RAHS concepts and tools to the social, and economic and financial
domains," Nathan wrote in an e-mail interview.
Whether terrorism or epidemics, Singapore's rapid acceptance of data mining
is a breath of fresh air to the system's designers. "Singapore is small and
has this intrinsic sense of paranoia," Peterson said.
"I think we would have been stuck in Darpa doing experimental research for
another 15 years without anyone making it operational," Snowden said.
"Singapore just walked around and saw what they liked, and said, 'The hell
with it, let's just make it operational,' which is much more pragmatic and
While the controversial Darpa efforts were never more than research, RAHS is
set to launch with five different agencies in September.
Eventually, RAHS would extend across Singapore's entire government, a plan
that makes it the most ambitious data-snooping effort in the world.
Those involved in the Singapore system are well aware of the brouhaha over
TIA, but say they are less concerned about RAHS. Snowden pointed out that
although RAHS would pore through everything from health records to raw
intelligence, only the "metadata" is shared among agencies, and not the data
Likewise, officials in Singapore are thinking about the privacy debate.
Nathan said that at this stage, RAHS will focus on "open-source information"
until the procedures for classified data can be worked out.
In parallel, Singapore is running a pilot project on data anonymization, he
Steven Aftergood, head of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on
Government Secrecy, said that while he wasn't familiar with RAHS, privacy
issues are important in any data-mining system. "Some government officials
attempt to finesse the privacy issue by insisting that individual records
and data will not normally be shared or subject to examination by a human
observer so, they argue, there is no real infringement on privacy," he wrote
in an e-mail. "But that doesn't get to the heart of the issue. Personal
privacy is compromised whenever one is subject to unwanted surveillance,
even by a machine."
For Snowden, the balance between privacy and security is more clear-cut.
"If somebody can use a little bit of software that connects up the
conversation between somebody trying to get into Britain, and four or five
stories told by parents of pupils in a school in an area with a high Islamic
population, and some police intelligence reports, and see there's a pattern,
I think that's a good thing," he said.
Of course Snowden concedes that how the public views the privacy issue
depends on "how people explain it and how it's sold."
That's where the conference in Singapore comes in. The goal of the
symposium, which took place Monday and Tuesday, was "to expose this thing to
the international world," said the Arlington Institute's Peterson. Officials
from the United Kingdom, Australia, the United States, New Zealand and
Israel were invited to attend.
The conference follows a visit to Washington, D.C., the first week in March
by a Singapore delegation to discuss RAHS with U.S. intelligence and
Homeland Security officials. The Singaporeans had on their agenda meetings
with Charles Allen, DHS' assistant secretary for intelligence and analysis,
and Patrick Neary, strategy chief for National Intelligence Director Mike
McConnell, according to the PR firm hired by the Singapore government to
publicize the trip, though the planned meeting with Neary didn't take place.
Neither DHS nor the Office of the Director of National Intelligence would
comment on their interest in the program.
Poindexter, who was also on the roster of people the Singaporeans were
scheduled to meet with in the United States, never quite disappeared from
the data-mining scene. In January of this year, he was elected to the board
of BrightPlanet, a firm that boasts "the most powerful search, harvest and
document federation technology available in the world." The company's press
release announcing Poindexter's appointment noted the former national
security adviser would "provide guidance in developing further contacts
within the intelligence community."
As for Poindexter's association with RAHS and his appearance at this week's
conference, Nathan noted that meetings with the former Darpa manager are
consultative. "We have no formal relationship with John Poindexter but have
met him to exchange ideas and perspectives," he said.
Whether formal or informal, everyone involved in RAHS is aware that
Poindexter has proved a lightning rod for critics of data mining.
Recalling the events that led to the closing of Poindexter's office,
Snowden, who describes himself as "on the left politically," was candid
about the man he still calls a friend.
"He's a genius," Snowden said, "but he's a naive genius; he didn't realize
how it was going to be picked up."
To unsubscribe, e-mail: infowar -
- infopeace -
For additional commands, e-mail: infowar -
- infopeace -