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U.S. Never Really Ended Creepy “Total Information Awareness” Program

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Yesterday I posted a column presenting the views of Dave Farber, “Grandfather of the Internet,” on cybersecurity. I interviewed Farber on May 26, shortly before a flood of reports (the first of which was in The Guardian, a British newspaper) that the U.S. is monitoring telephone and Internet communications of ordinary citizens.

Farber anticipated these revelations. Although our main topic was cyberattacks by nations and criminals, we also discussed government surveillance. When I asked Farber if U.S. citizens need to worry about the U.S. acting like Big Brother, he replied, “Yeah.”

He noted that average citizens now generate huge amounts of digital information. This “Big Data” can be used in two different ways. First, corporations can analyze the data for commercially beneficial insights. Second, government agencies can examine the data for evidence that you are engaged in suspicious activities. “Once you have the data out there,” he said, “there is a whole set of things you can do with it, some of them justifiable and some not justifiable.”

Farber recalled that shortly after 9/11, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency initiated “Total Information Awareness,” a surveillance program that called for recording and analyzing all digital information generated by all U.S. citizens. (See Wikipedia for a history of the program.) After news reports provoked criticism of the Darpa program, it was officially discontinued. But Farber suspected that new surveillance programs represent a continuation of Total Information Awareness. “I can’t get anyone to deny that there’s a common thread there,” he said.

In fact, this week’s news reports that the U.S. has been carrying out what is in effect a Total Information Awareness program should not have come as a huge surprise. Last year, long-time spy-watcher James Bamford revealed in WIRED that the National Security Agency is building a vast, $2 billion facility in Utah “to intercept, decipher, analyze, and store vast swaths of the world’s communications as they zap down from satellites and zip through the underground and undersea cables of international, foreign, and domestic networks.”

Bamford asserted that the facility, called the Utah Data Center, “is, in some measure, the realization of the ‘total information awareness’ program created during the first term of the Bush administration—an effort that was killed by Congress in 2003 after it caused an outcry over its potential for invading Americans’ privacy.”

Must ordinary Americans accept this degree of surveillance? How can we ensure that the government won’t abuse its enormous power to spy on us? Can we counter it, perhaps by spying on the spies?



John Horgan About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. dernickvw 10:29 am 06/7/2013


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  2. 2. 1:48 pm 06/7/2013

    I remember an Issac Asimov horror story “The Dead Past” about a world which loses all its privacy … by the invention of the chronoscope developed to investigate ancient history … instead every other person becomes a time scanner junkie reminiscing about their youth …

    Or try Phillip Dick’s “The Minority Report” … made into a recent Hollywood film …

    Without some values commitments society will collapse with this technology. Neither can property not equality be the one true single-value single-issue policy … without some commitments to liberty by those who run society … well we know know where it leads …

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  3. 3. CiaranJ 2:33 pm 06/7/2013

    I see today that Microsoft, Google, Facebook et al deny that they are spying on US citizens for the NSA.
    Unfortunately, as we know that the state uses National Security Letters (NSLs) and other means to prevent Verizon and others disclosing data requests then how can we believe them? It is getting to the point when the executive does not trust the people and the people will no longer trust the executive.
    Even if we do believe them that it will only affect non-US citizens who happen to use Microsoft, Google, Facebook etc. So the message is to the rest of the world that you cannot trust your private data to US companies. Duh.

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  4. 4. ferncanyon 6:52 pm 06/7/2013

    And what are these corporations doing with all this private data? They might not be using it to catch criminals (I use this word since the authorities have broadened the term “terrorist” to include many other crimes besides terrorism), but the corporations are no doubt using it for other things besides generating our bills. Could they be sharing it or selling it?

    Perhaps there needs to be a law that prevents the corporations from maintaining any call data that’s not in the customer’s phone bill and is deleted once the bill is generated, so that only the bills remain.

    But I seriously doubt Congress will do much to restrict the corporations or the NSA. As they develop new methods of keeping track of everyone, our privacy will probably continue to diminish.

    By the way, I always seem to find better, more accurate, coverage of U.S. news in the Sydney Morning Herald. See what you think:

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  5. 5. Chryses 8:33 pm 06/7/2013

    Can anyone supply a reference to the specifics? I’d like to know what the facts are before judging.

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  6. 6. abolitionist 6:47 am 06/8/2013

    What is the nature of the problem people have with this program? ( )

    As far as I can tell, the requested data includes telephone numbers, calling card numbers, the serial numbers of phones used and the time and duration of calls. The data does not include the content of a call or the callers’ addresses or financial information.

    If this anonymous information can be used to benefit U.S. citizens, what is the basis for the criticism?

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  7. 7. N a g n o s t i c 4:01 am 06/9/2013

    abolitionist, the data exceeds what was being collected under Bush, and you undoubtedly had a negative view of the activity at that time. Why so tolerant now?

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  8. 8. N a g n o s t i c 4:04 am 06/9/2013

    ferncanyon, the foreign news outlets are free to report news, our’s are not, since they’re ideologically beholden to Dear Leader.

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  9. 9. abolitionist 6:19 am 06/9/2013

    @14. N a g n o s t i c,

    “the data exceeds what was being collected under Bush”

    Probably because the program is now mature.

    “you undoubtedly had a negative view of the activity at that time”

    Do you have any rational basis for that assumption?

    ”Why so tolerant now?”

    Because the nature of the data being collected and analyzed seems to not violate the Fourth Amendment.

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  10. 10. Chryses 6:28 am 06/9/2013

    N a g n o s t i c (11),

    “… Wow, the lengths some people go to protect Dear Leader.”

    This is, after all, a political blog. There’s little to be gained from flogging that dead horse.

    What are your thoughts about the PRISM program?

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  11. 11. OgreMk5 10:46 am 06/10/2013

    Those that think that the metadata can’t be very useful need to ask themselves two questions.

    1) If this data is so unimportant, then why collect it at all?
    2) Why not post your entire phone bill online?

    Think about it a second. If all we have is the numbers and length of time you spend with them, I’m willing to bet that even a non-official could find out more about you than you’d like.

    Did you call your bank? Your credit card company? Your kid’s school? Your doctor(s)? An attorney? Did you make and receive calls from work? about work? How about your car dealership?

    Just from a list of phone numbers, we potentially know about where you bank, your credit card company, travel plans, your health, your kids, any civil litigation you may be involved with (divorce, taxes, accounting, etc), what you drive, where you spend your time, who your family it.

    Sure, the information becomes much more detailed if the conversation is actually recorded, but that detail isn’t needed to build up a pretty good picture of your life (especially over a few months or years).

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  12. 12. CurrentOutlook 3:45 pm 06/10/2013


    The SCOTUS has ruled that metadata is not protected speech under the Fourth Amendment.

    Smith v. Maryland, 442 U.S. 735 (1979)

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  13. 13. ferncanyon 6:05 pm 06/10/2013

    They’re collecting much more than just phone records, since they’re also monitoring Internet activity.

    They say they are only using this information to protect us from terrorism, but didn’t they label Julian Assange and Bradley Manning as terrorists? No doubt they’ll do the same with whistleblower Edward Snowden.

    I doubt they restrict their investigations to just suspect individuals. You can be pretty sure they’ll investigate everyone they had contact with, searching for anything that might indicate all those people are guilty of something. And then they’ll investigate everyone those people had contact with.

    To protect national security, how many innocent people do you think will end up on watch lists just because there’s something that might be suspicious.

    Innocent people have been prevented from taking vacations out of the country because they were on watch lists. I seem to recall this happening to one congressman, and of course, Cat Stevens wasn’t allowed to enter for his concert tour. I also seem to recall that the Nixon administration tried to keep John Lennon out because of his “criminal activities” (smoking pot).

    Most people don’t mind if someone else’s privacy is invaded, as long as they don’t think it will happen to them, but the government does have a long history of ruining the lives of innocent people.

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  14. 14. CurrentOutlook 10:06 pm 06/10/2013

    @20. ferncanyon,

    “They say they are only using this information to protect us from terrorism, but didn’t they label Julian Assange and Bradley Manning as terrorists? No doubt they’ll do the same with whistleblower Edward Snowden.”

    When you say ‘they’ those four times, who are you talking about?

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  15. 15. N a g n o s t i c 5:43 pm 06/11/2013

    TIA generated tons of indignant outrage at the time. Prism is generating a fraction of it. Seems we’re more comfortable when a Nobel laureate is doing the snooping.

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  16. 16. John F 1:13 pm 06/13/2013

    The reason the Neocons have pushed and defended PRISM is all about the same reason they lied us into the war with Iraq and are currently trying to hoax us into a war with Iran is the same reason – it’s all about Israel

    Do you know any Neocon like Sen Joe Lieberman, William Kristol or Charles Krauthammer who WOULDN’T be OVERJOYED that Israel had complete penetration of US Telecom/Interet? – These are THEIR PEOPLE, they work in the interests of THESE PEOPLE

    Neocons have pushed the Israelification of American foreign policy, the ‘surveillance state’, and a ‘war on terror’/Clash of Civilizations to dovetail with ISRAELI/Neocon interests

    The Dept of Homeland Security, the Patriot Act, and the rest of making the US a police state to guard against the blowback of decades of AIPAC-/Neocon-generated ‘Pro-Israel’ foreign policies – blowback which includes the 911 attacks (see the 911 Report and Iraq Study Group reports, as well as the words of KSM and OBL themselves) – is ALL in service of Israel

    Israel Lobby operatives – spanning the political range from Sen Joe Liebermans to Jane Harmans(caught on the phone with Mossad) Diane Feinstein – have willingly turned the US into a police state such that the state can prosecute anyone who is operating AGAINST the AIPAC/Israel/Israeli Lobby interests, spying on the US (like AIPAC’s Rosen/Weissman or Nozette) or it’s programs.

    The Feinsteins, McCains, Grahams, Peter Kings and Jane Harmans are all willing to PROSECUTE Americans in order to PROTECT ISRAELIS and ALLOW complete seamless Israel penetration of the entire American population – as has now occurred.

    The Israeli high-tech firms Verint and Narus have direct connections to Israeli intelligence/’IDF intelligence-gathering UNIT 8200’ and have conducted bugging and wiretapping for the NSA.

    Over the coming days let’s all watch the defenders of Israeli spying in the US – the John McCains, Lindsey Grahmans and Rep Peter Kings, do EVERYTHING within their power to move heaven and earth to shield Israel from being made known to the US populace during in these NSA revelations.

    For all of those who think the US spying on all Telecommunications/Email-Internet traffic is OK as long as it’s done by the good ‘ole USA and you don’t care because you have ‘nothing to hide’…

    Well – how do you feel about ISRAEL spying on you and everyone in the US, then?

    And even worse – how do you feel about Feinstein, Rogers, Chambliss and others trying to prevent Israeli/Neocon involvement in these programs from BECOMING KNOWN to the American people?

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  17. 17. Chryses 5:47 am 06/14/2013

    John F (20),

    That reads like nonsense to me.

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  18. 18. abolitionist 7:31 am 06/15/2013

    Now that more facts about the programs have been made public, it looks as if they were and remain a pretty good tradeoff between civil liberties and national security. It’s a shame that Mr. Snowden saw fit to diminish their value.

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