We all knew that Total Information Awareness and its uber-database progeny weren’t going away. It was just a question of what names TIA’s bastard children were now using, and what government agencies had decided to give ’em a home.
Today, we find out about two of the not-so-little stinkers. Newsweek, in a brutal assessment of the NSA and other intelligence agencies (“Wanted: Competent Big Brothers”), tucks in this nugget:
Today, very quietly, the core of TIA survives with a new codename of Topsail… two officials privy to the intelligence tell NEWSWEEK. It is in programs like these that real data mining is going on andconsidering the furor over TIAwith fewer intrusions on civil liberties than occur under the NSA surveillance program. “Its the best thing to come out of American intelligence in decades,” says John Arquilla, an intelligence expert at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. “It is truly Poindexters brainchild. Of all the people in the intelligence business, he has the keenest appreciation of using advanced information technology for intelligence gathering.” Poindexter, who lives just outside Washington in Rockville, Md., could not be reached for comment on whether he is still involved with Topsail.
Meanwhile, the Christian Science Monitor has discovered a new data-mining program over at the Homeland Security Department. It’s called Analysis, Dissemination, Visualization, Insight, and Semantic Enhancement — “ADVISE,” for short.
What sets ADVISE apart is its scope. It would collect a vast array of corporate and public online information – from financial records to CNN news stories – and cross-reference it against US intelligence and law-enforcement records. The system would then store it as “entities” – linked data about people, places, things, organizations, and events, according to a report summarizing a 2004 DHS conference in Alexandria, Va. The storage requirements alone are huge – enough to retain information about 1 quadrillion entities, the report estimated. If each entity were a penny, they would collectively form a cube a half-mile high – roughly double the height of the Empire State Building.
But ADVISE and related DHS technologies aim to do much more, according to Joseph Kielman, manager of the TVTA [Threat and Vulnerability, Testing and Assessment] portfolio. The key is not merely to identify terrorists, or sift for key words, but to identify critical patterns in data that illumine their motives and intentions, he wrote in a presentation at a November conference in Richland, Wash.
For example: Is a burst of Internet traffic between a few people the plotting of terrorists, or just bloggers arguing? ADVISE algorithms would try to determine that before flagging the data pattern for a human analyst’s review.
Another component of ADVISE that the Monitor doesn’t pick up on: The project seems closely tied towards WMD defense. It’ll “incorporate a comprehensive encyclopedia of chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive threat and effects data,” DHS Under Secretary for Science and Technology Charles McQueary told the House Committee on Science last year. This report sketches out one way ADVISE might use that information:
A radiation detector at a Canadian border crossing may pick up an anomalous reading that might be too ambiguous to trigger an alarm, but the incorporation of additional data (e.g., the driver is associated with a group known to be collecting nuclear materials or the same anomalous reading appears every week from the
same driver and truck) would greatly improve the threat detection ability of these systems.
(Big ups: Eric, Laura)
UPDATE 9:42 AM: “After seven weeks of refusing to provide Congress with details of its secret domestic spying program,” the L.A. Times reports, “the White House changed course Wednesday and began to describe the operations of the controversial surveillance to members of the House and Senate intelligence committees.” And the WaPo notes that “twice in the past four years, a top Justice Department lawyer warned the presiding judge of a secret surveillance court that information overheard in President Bush’s eavesdropping program may have been improperly used to obtain wiretap warrants in the court.”
UPDATE 2:04 PM: “I wonder if this is not yet another example of our countrys over-reliance on technology to try to solve its intelligence problems,” says Kris, who knows a thing or two about intel.
[Osama] probably isnt clicking around on Amazon. The bad guys are smart enough to adapt to the environment in which they live. They know when our satellites are passing over. They know that we monitor their communications and work to counter that. Theyll counter this too. Im not saying that something like this wont produce useful intelligence. Im sure it will, but well still be left with gaps.