Threats Necessitate New Information Policing

Posted February 21, 2003 at 9:19am

Past wars have been fought and won by armies, navies and air forces aligned against each another in great, conventional battles for countries, their capitals and ports. The global war against terrorism is different. It has exposed a new kind of enemy: a shadowy network of terrorists adept at crossing borders, hiding in open societies and using technology to plan and execute their murderous plans.

Fighting this network means pursing terrorists through a variety of means, including law enforcement, military action and diplomacy. Just as the terrorists have used technology to communicate, coordinate and fund attacks, we have learned that in the 21st century, the key to fighting terrorism is information.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recently described the challenge: “What we’re trying to do right now is hard — it’s to connect the dots before the facts; it’s to see if we can’t avert a September 11th with weapons of mass destruction. That is not easy stuff.”

In the aftermath of a terrorist attack, information and data is often discovered that was available in some parts of the massive government infrastructure, but not tagged with any importance before the attack. The Total Information Awareness program has been created to improve cross-checking of information between government agencies.

Although still in the research phase, the TIA program promises to become a powerful tool in fighting terrorism. TIA is a program conducted by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Throughout its 44-year history, DARPA has developed innovative technologies to solve national problems. DARPA’s innovations serve not only the Pentagon, but other federal and local agencies as well. Programs for the FBI and U.S. Customs Service led to new technologies for detecting contraband at airports and harbors. Many existing information technologies — including the Internet — started as DARPA projects.

In the years prior to Sept. 11, DARPA was working on technologically advanced information searches. In the wake of Sept. 11, DARPA combined various existing initiatives and created an office to develop new information technologies that could detect terrorist groups planning attacks against American citizens anywhere in the world. In support of law-enforcement and intelligence agencies, TIA seeks to develop existing information technology in three key areas: language translation; advanced collaborative and decision support tools; and data search and pattern recognition.

Language translation technologies will enable the rapid analysis of foreign languages — spoken word and text — to allow intelligence and law-enforcement agencies to quickly search for clues about emerging terrorist threats. The intelligence community has long believed evidence of terrorist activities can be found in open-source, foreign language publications and broadcasts. New language-analysis technologies will help agencies search a significant amount of material in a much shorter period of time than is currently possible.

Collaborative reasoning and decision-support technologies will enable analysts from different agencies to share intelligence effectively with one another. A major challenge to terrorist detection today is the inability to quickly search, correlate and share data from databases maintained by different intelligence, counterintelligence and law-enforcement agencies. Collaborative reasoning and decision-support technologies will punch holes into these “stovepipes.”

Exploration of data-search and pattern-recognition technologies — which has drawn the greatest amount of suspicion — is based on the idea that terrorist planning could be uncovered by searching vast quantities of data for patterns indicative of terrorist activity. Terrorists must engage in certain transactions to coordinate and conduct attacks against Americans, and these transactions form patterns that may be detectable.

Contrary to some reports, TIA is not a supercomputer that will snoop into private lives, gather consumer data or track Americans’ everyday activities. TIA is not designed to collect intelligence information. This will remain the responsibility of existing U.S. intelligence agencies that operate under various legal restrictions and with Congressional oversight.

The Defense Department is dedicated to protecting individual privacy, and has implemented strict safeguards to ensure that TIA research will not violate this basic right. TIA’s research into pattern recognition will use only existing data that is legally obtainable by the government. [IMGCAP(1)]

In addition, TIA will research and develop privacy-protection technologies to prevent abuses, defend against external threats, and ensure that information is used for lawful purposes. Two separate boards — an internal oversight board and an outside advisory committee — will work with DARPA to ensure that TIA tracks terrorist information in a manner consistent not only with the law, but with the fundamental American right to privacy.

Speaking recently aboard the USS Intrepid, a World War II aircraft carrier turned museum in New York harbor, Secretary Rumsfeld linked the Sept. 11 and Pearl Harbor attacks with the question Americans ask of both tragedies: How could they have been prevented?

“The United States has spent months and months and months trying to figure out how they can connect the dots with respect to September 11th,” he said. “How might we have avoided that? What would have enabled us to take all of the pieces of information and act in a way that could have prevented the deaths of more than 3,000 people? What did we have? We had a scrap of information, a phone call here, a credit card there, someone learning how to fly but not learning how to land.”

TIA has the potential to turn scraps of information into advance notice of specific terrorist threats. It will also sharpen America’s technological edge as it fights the global war against terrorism — the same edge that contributed to victories throughout U.S. history.

But history is not a perfect guide. The United States is fighting a new kind of war against an often-unseen enemy. But with time and support, TIA may help us connect the dots and win the war against terrorism.

Michael Wynne is the principal deputy under secretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics.