Sunshine Week: The Pathetic Story of One Request for Total Info Awareness
Wired, Ryan Singel, 03.13.07 01:23 PM
This week is Sunshine Week, an open government initiative sponsored by American Society of Newspaper Editors, that celebrates and advocates for more transparency in American government, especially as it relates to official requests for documents from government agencies. So this might be a good time to talk about my long-standing Freedom of Information Act request that the government has stymied, lost and bounced from component to component.
In the fall of 2002, a government plan to root around in every conceivable database – public or private – on Americans' daily lives to find possible terrorists began gathering attention from journalists. The research project, known as Total Information Awareness, was spearheaded by Adm. John Poindexter of Iran-Contra fame and was eventually largely killed off by Congress (portions of the effort went into the Pentagon's black budget and was allowed to be developed so long as only foreigners were targeted by the system).
But prior to that, the program was tested using some interesting data sets. For example, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or Darpa, told Congress that it had tested some data-mining tools on information gleaned during the war in Afghanistan. Darpa also said that it had created an entire fake world of data – 10 million fake people buying fake things with fake credit cards, fake people emailing other fake people, etc. In a later interview, Poindexter called this "Vanilla World." Into this morass of data, Darpa would insert fake "red teams" – fake terrorists plotting with other fake terrorists for some nefarious fake terrorist attack.
Fascinating. So on July 8, 2003, I used the Freedom of Information Act to ask for documents about the testing and for documents about privacy protections in TIA. Though I've filed many FOIAs in my life, little did I know what I was getting into by asking Darpa to turn over information... . . .
Congress, DARPA, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Department of Homeland Security, Federal, Freedom of Information Act Requests, Government Transparency, Total Information Awareness System, Wired
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