The Pentagon plans to create an oversight board and outside advisory committee to track the activity of a global data-surveillance research program, after complaints from some lawmakers and civil liberties activists that the program threatens privacy, officials said yesterday.
The move follows growing criticism of the Total Information Awareness project, a program begun a year ago by former national security adviser John M. Poindexter, as part of a broad push by the government to deploy data-surveillance and profiling technology in the war on terrorism.
Two weeks ago, the Senate unanimously approved an amendment to its omnibus spending bill that would cut off funding for research and development for the program unless the Defense Department explained its aims and potential impact on privacy. The House must also approve the measure for it to take effect.
Under the plan announced yesterday, an internal oversight board would track development of the surveillance technology for "real world use," and it would create policies to ensure that it does not violate privacy laws and rules. The outside board, including civil liberties and legal specialists, will advise the defense secretary on the social and legal implications of the new surveillance technology. Among those on the board is First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams and former U.S. attorney general Griffin Bell.
The department said in a prepared statement that its Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, where the program is based, "is continuing its research into whether advanced technologies can be used to help identify terrorist planning activities. . . . While the research to date is promising, TIA is still only a concept." Edward C. "Pete" Aldrich Jr., the undersecretary in charge of department acquisition, said he hopes the effort will head off tougher restrictions by Congress.
Critics praised the boards' creation but said Congress needs to maintain close watch and control over the project, which has become the focus of unease about government programs that rely on new legal authority and powerful computers, databases and other technology to track and profile individuals.
"We're talking about a program that would undermine the core American value of privacy," said Katie Corrigan, legislative counsel at the Washington national office of the American Civil Liberties Union, which recently teamed up with conservative groups such as the Free Congress Foundation to oppose Poindexter's program.
The program's plan call for development of technology that would enable analysts and computer software to sift through "ultra-large" data warehouses and networked computers to discern threatening patterns among everyday transactions, such as credit card purchases, travel reservations, e-mail and unusual medical care, such as that indicating the effects of biological weapons.
In an interview last fall, Poindexter said 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. Poindexter said he understands the privacy implications but said it is up to Congress and policymakers to define how the emerging technology is used.