Terrorism and Technology

views updated

Terrorism and Technology

"Information Awareness Office Overview"


By: John Marlan Poindexter

Date: The text titled "Information Awareness Office Overview" contains remarks delivered by John Poindexter, then Director of DARPA's Information Awareness Office, at DARPATech 2002 Conference, Anaheim, Calif., August 2, 2002.

Source: Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

About the Author: In 1958 John Marlan Poindexter graduated from the United States Naval Academy with a B.S. in engineering. In 1961, he earned his masters degree in physics from the California Institute of Technology and went on to earn his Ph.D. in nuclear physics in 1964. He served in the U.S Navy in various positions from 1958 to 1987. Under the Reagan administration (1981–1989) Poindexter went on to serve as Military Assistant, from 1981 to 1983, as Deputy National Security Advisor from 1983 to 1985, and as National Security Advisor from 1985 to 1986. He also briefly served as the Director of the Information Awareness Office (IAO) of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in 2002. The DARPA is an agency of the United States Department of Defense responsible for the development of new technology for use by the military. In 2002, the IAO proposed the controversial Total Information Awareness Program (TIA), which was established after the September 11, 2001 attacks to gather intelligence data through electronic data surveillance and data mining techniques. Funding for the IAO was eventually eliminated and Poindexter retired from DARPA on August 12, 2003.


The attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 propelled many organizations (that are a part of the United States Department of Defense) to take up initiatives for preventing future terrorist attacks. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) also introduced a number of programs to counter terrorism.

One such initiative that was introduced by the Information Awareness Office (IAO) was known as Total Information Awareness (TIA). TIA is now known as Terrorism Information Awareness. The text titled "Information Awareness Office Overview" is the transcript of the speech delivered by John Poindexter (then Director of IAO) at the DARPAtech 2002 Conference.

This speech was intended to provide a clear idea of the Information Awareness Office and the programs undertaken by DARPA. Poindexter discusses the implications and applications of various DARPA programs, such as Human Identification at Distance, Genisys, TIDES, EARS, Evidence Extraction and Link Discovery, War Gaming the Asymmetric Environment, Bio-Surveillance, Genoa II, and Total Information Awareness. The TIA Program was conceived to detect terrorists by analyzing huge resources of information. In his speech, Poindexter lays out the significance of the TIA program and why he considered it important to apply this program in the matters pertaining to national security. Poindexter states that TIA is an all-encompassing program created to work in harmony with all the above mentioned DARPA programs.


The world has changed dramatically since the Cold War when there existed two super powers. During the years I was in the White House, it was relatively simple to identify our intelligence collection targets. It was sometimes hard to collect the intelligence, but the targets were clear. Today, we are in a world of asymmetries. The most serious asymmetric threat facing the United States is terrorism, a threat characterized by collections of people loosely organized in shadowy networks that are difficult to identify and define and whose goals are the destruction of our way of life. The intelligence collection targets are thousands of people whose identities and whereabouts we do not always know. It is somewhat analogous to the anti-submarine warfare problem of finding submarines in an ocean of noise—we must find the terrorists in a world of noise, understand what they are planning, and develop options for preventing their attacks. If we are to preserve our national security, we must figure out a way of combating this threat.

The Information Awareness Office at DARPA is about creating technologies that would permit us to have both security and privacy. More than just making sure that different databases can talk to one another, we need better ways to extract information from those unified databases, and to ensure that the private information on innocent citizens is protected. The main point is that we need a much more systematic approach. A variety of tools, processes, and procedures will be required to deal with the problem, but they must be integrated by a systems approach built around a common architecture to be effective. Total Information Awareness—a prototype system—is our answer. We must be able to detect, classify, identify, and track terrorists so that we may understand their plans and act to prevent them from being executed. To protect our rights, we must ensure that our systems track the terrorists, and those that mean us harm.

IAO programs are focused on making Total Information Awareness—TIA—real. This is a high level, visionary, functional view of the world-wide system—somewhat over simplified. One of the significant new data sources that needs to be mined to discover and track terrorists is the transaction space. If terrorist organizations are going to plan and execute attacks against the United States, their people must engage in transactions and they will leave signatures in this information space. This is a list of transaction categories, and it is meant to be inclusive. Currently, terrorists are able to move freely throughout the world, to hide when necessary, to find sponsorship and support, and to operate in small, independent cells, and to strike infrequently, exploiting weapons of mass effects and media response to influence governments. We are painfully aware of some of the tactics that they employ. This low-intensity/low-density form of warfare has an information signature. We must be able to pick this signal out of the noise. Certain agencies and apologists talk about connecting the dots, but one of the problems is to know which dots to connect. The relevant information extracted from this data must be made available in largescale repositories with enhanced semantic content for easy analysis to accomplish this task. The transactional data will supplement our more conventional intelligence collection.

While our goal is total information awareness, there will always be uncertainty and ambiguity in trying to understand what is being planned. That's why our tools have to build models of competing hypotheses. That is, we need to bring people with diverse points of view together in a collaborative environment where there is access to all source data, discovery tools and model building tools. Collaboration has not been so important in the past when problems were less complex, but now it is essential. And tools have to make the analysis process more efficient, to properly explore the multiple possibilities. This is the analytical environment. I could have called it the intelligence community, but in the case of counter-terrorism, it is broader to include law enforcement, friendly allies, outside experts, etc. A similar environment exists for the policy and operations community, but the functions and tools are different. The mission here is to take the competing hypotheses from the analytical environment and estimate a range of plausible futures. The objective is to identify common nodes, representing situations that could occur, and to explore the probable impact of various actions or interventions that authorities might make in response to these situations.

The overarching program that binds IAO's efforts together is Total Information Awareness or TIA System. The primary goal of TIA is the integration and assured transition of components developed in the programs Genoa, Genoa II, GENISYS, EELD, WAE, TIDES, HumanID and Bio-Surveillance. TIA will develop a modular system architecture using open standards that will enable a spiral development effort that will allow the insertion of new components when they are available. We will produce a complete, end-to-end, closed-loop proto-type system in a realistic environment. To accomplish this we have established an organization whose structure is as diagramed here. We will supplement the programs in IAO with commercial and other government components to rapidly implement early versions of TIA system at our R&D laboratory. We have already begun a spiral development and experiment program in conjunction with Army partners. Over the next few years, we will continuously add functionality to the system as components become available.


The Total Information Awareness program has been under constant scrutiny ever since it was in its primary stage of conception. The program proposed to make extensive use of advanced data-mining tools (tools that analyze data and create relationships based on the analysis) and a huge database to identify patterns of terrorist activities.

In a nutshell, the key goal of the TIA Program was to track and identify terrorists by collecting as much information about them as possible. The data collection would be accomplished by obtaining financial records, medical records, travel records, and communication records over and above other newer sources of obtaining personal information. This would form the basis of the "intelligence data" and would be used to track potentially harmful activities. The TIA tracking mechanism would then employ state-of-the-art data mining tools, computer-based surveillance tools, and human analysis of the intelligence data to establish preventive measures for countering terrorism.

Among other technologies, TIA also aimed at developing biometric technology along with its existing Human Identification at Distance program to facilitate a nationwide identification program that can track individuals that are identified by its data-mining tools.

In May 2003, DARPA issued its report regarding the Terrorism Information Awareness Program to the U.S. Congress, and renamed the TIA Program from Total Information Awareness to Terrorism Information Awareness. The main purpose of the report was to outline the components of TIA and discuss their accountability. However, the report failed to generate the required impact on Congress as well as the citizens of the United States. Many concerned citizens and lawmakers considered it inadequate in addressing critical issues such as privacy, security, civil liberties, as well as the accuracy of data obtained.

Simultaneously, organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), and the U.S. Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) also criticized the TIA program. In January 2003, the U.S. Senate passed the Data Mining Moratorium Act of 2003, effectively ending all United States Department of Defense (DoD) and Homeland Security data mining activities similar to the Total Information Awareness program. Subsequently, in September 2003, the funding for the TIA program was stopped by the Congress resulting in the shut down of the Information Awareness Office.

Most experts at the time held that programs such as the TIA could be effectively used to counter terrorism and there have been other technology initiatives taken by DARPA that have proved successful in various counterterrorism programs. These include DARPA technologies used in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Noble Eagle, which were especially useful in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. DARPA's Tactical Mobile Robotics program, for example, developed small ground robots that were used in Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2002.

Operation Noble Eagle, the DoD's Homeland Security program, has extensively used DARPA's technologies since early 2002. One such technology is the tool known as LEADERS—a consequence management program that provided medical surveillance against biological warfare. This program was also used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to monitor specific symptoms observed in New York City hospitals (immediately after the WTC attack) and report them immediately to the CDC in Atlanta for instantaneous evaluation. DARPA technologies have also helped in the search and rescue operations following the WTC attack.


Web sites

Electronic Frontier Foundation. "Total Information Awareness." <http://www.eff.org/Privacy/TIA> (accessed July 01, 2005).

Electronic Privacy Information Center. "Total Terrorism Information Awareness (TIA)." <http://www.epic.org/privacy/profiling/tia> (accessed July 01, 2005).

IWS—The Information Warfare Site. "Terrorism Information Awareness (TIA) Program formerly known as Total Information Awareness." <http://www.iwar.org.uk/news-archive/tia/total-information-awareness.htm> (accessed July 01, 2005).

Sourcewatch. "Information Awareness Office." <http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Information_Awareness_Office> (accessed July 01, 2005).

About this article

Terrorism and Technology

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article