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Critical views of science in the news

U.S. Never Really Ended Creepy "Total Information Awareness" Program*

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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?

Image: http://www.nsa.gov/public_info/press_room/2013/computing_center.shtml

 

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

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