The Christian Science Monitor (a consistent source of solid, spin-cutting reporting) reported on Thursday that the Bush Administration is developing a massive data-sucking operation that will rip away whatever tatters of privacy Americans may (apparently foolishly) believe they have.
Here are key elements of the story:
The US government is developing a massive computer system that can collect huge amounts of data and, by linking far-flung information from blogs and e-mail to government records and intelligence reports, search for patterns of terrorist activity.The entire program in shrouded in secrecy. The existence of the program was only able to be discerned by parsing through an assortment of public documents:
The system - parts of which are operational, parts of which are still under development - is already credited with helping to foil some plots. It is the federal government's latest attempt to use broad data-collection and powerful analysis in the fight against terrorism. But by delving deeply into the digital minutiae of American life, the program is also raising concerns that the government is intruding too deeply into citizens' privacy.
"We don't realize that, as we live our lives and make little choices, like buying groceries, buying on Amazon, Googling, we're leaving traces everywhere," says Lee Tien, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "We have an attitude that no one will connect all those dots. But these programs are about connecting those dots - analyzing and aggregating them - in a way that we haven't thought about. It's one of the underlying fundamental issues we have yet to come to grips with."
The core of this effort is a little-known system called Analysis, Dissemination, Visualization, Insight, and Semantic Enhancement (ADVISE). Only a few public documents mention it. ADVISE is a research and development program within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), part of its three-year-old "Threat and Vulnerability, Testing and Assessment" portfolio. The TVTA received nearly $50 million in federal funding this year.Everyone's activity is subject to surveillance:
What sets ADVISE apart is its scope. It would collect a vast array of corporate and public online information - from financial records to CNN news stories - and cross-reference it against US intelligence and law-enforcement records. The system would then store it as "entities" - linked data about people, places, things, organizations, and events, according to a report summarizing a 2004 DHS conference in Alexandria, Va. The storage requirements alone are huge - enough to retain information about 1 quadrillion entities, the report estimated. If each entity were a penny, they would collectively form a cube a half-mile high - roughly double the height of the Empire State Building.Can you say "Death to the Fourth Amendment"? If you can, you'll likely end up in the database.
But ADVISE and related DHS technologies aim to do much more, according to Joseph Kielman, manager of the TVTA portfolio. The key is not merely to identify terrorists, or sift for key words, but to identify critical patterns in data that illumine their motives and intentions, he wrote in a presentation at a November conference in Richland, Wash.
The Christian Science Monitor calls the program "A program in the shadows." The secrecy surrounding the program is sounding alarms among conservatives, progressives and liberals.
Yet the scope of ADVISE - its stage of development, cost, and most other details - is so obscure that critics say it poses a major privacy challenge.What is most alarming about ADVISE and the National Security Agency's warrantless domestic spying operations is the fact that they are being carried out without the checks and balances provided by the Congress and the Courts.
"We just don't know enough about this technology, how it works, or what it is used for," says Marcia Hofmann of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington. "It matters to a lot of people that these programs and software exist. We don't really know to what extent the government is mining personal data."
Even congressmen with direct oversight of DHS, who favor data mining, say they don't know enough about the program.
"I am not fully briefed on ADVISE," wrote Rep. Curt Weldon (R) of Pennsylvania, vice chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, in an e-mail. "I'll get briefed this week."
Privacy concerns have torpedoed federal data-mining efforts in the past. In 2002, news reports revealed that the Defense Department was working on Total Information Awareness, a project aimed at collecting and sifting vast amounts of personal and government data for clues to terrorism. An uproar caused Congress to cancel the TIA program a year later.
Congress, under the control of Republicans in both houses, has, with rare exception, abandoned all pretense of providing oversight to any activities of the Bush administration, ranging from fixing the intelligence used to justify the invasion of Iraq to spying on the phone and internet communications of U.S. citizens.
It is that system of checks and balances that resides at the core of the American experiment in republican and democratic government. The system is under attack, not from outside the U.S., but from within. Most damning, the attack is being led by the executive branch of our own government.
The approach to governing and the Constitution that resides at the heart of the testimony given by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and the public statements of the President and Vice President constitute a constitutional coup. That is, they are unilaterally acting to alter — without public discussion — the constitutional balance of power that has been in place in this country for more than 200 years.
Who died and made W king?