Could cameras at immigration centers in airports and at the borders pick extremists out of the crowd?  Could software search social media to identify terrorists or for hints of upcoming attacks?

With terror organizations and terrorists using social media for recruitment and indoctrination it is worth revisiting such programs.

DARPA’s Total Information Awareness Program

After 9/11, and the myriad missed opportunities to connect the dots that might have exposed and prevented the attacks, the government sought ways to more efficiently collect, digest and synthesize information.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) began a variety of projects to efficiently assess electronic information under the rubric of the Information Awareness Office (“IAO”) and its Total Information Awareness (“TIA”) program.

IAO was a publicity debacle.  First, DARPA made retired Navy Vice-Admiral John Poindexter Director of IAO.  Fairly or unfairly, Adm. Poindexter is synonymous with shady dealings for his role in the Iran-Contra scandal.  In 1990 a jury found him guilty of Iran-Contra related charges, but the Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia reversed the conviction because prosecution witnesses had access to his immunized testimony before Congress.

Poindexter (snipped)

[Vice-Admiral John Poindexter]

Second, the TIA in particular was understood and attacked as a domestic spying and data collection program.  The ACLU’s “Q&A on the Pentagon’s ‘Total Information Awareness’ Program” is typical:

TIA may be the closest thing to a true “Big Brother” program that has ever been seriously contemplated in the United States…

Virtual dragnet programs like TIA…are based on the premise that the best way to protect America against terrorism is to [sic] for the government to collect as much information as it can.

Following the same script, Wired Magazine called Adm. Poindexter “The Pentagon’s Big Brother in chief”, and the “Total Information Awareness” moniker really is ominously overbearing.

The fear that TIA was part of a vast domestic spying ring was unfounded, at least according to the people who actually worked on the program.  In March, 2003, the Director of DARPA, Dr. Tony Tether, testified before the House Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Terrorism, Unconventional Threats and Capabilities:

One of our Information Awareness programs is Total Information Awareness (TIA), around which there has been much controversy. If I knew only what I read in the press about TIA, I would be concerned too. So I’d like to briefly address some of the main concerns.

No American’s privacy has changed in any way as a result of DARPA’s Information Awareness programs, including TIA. The Department of Defense is not developing technology so it can maintain dossiers on every American citizen. The Department of Defense is not assembling a giant database on Americans.

Instead, the TIA program is designed as an experimental, multi-agency prototype network that participating agencies can use to better share, analyze, understand, and make decisions based on whatever data to which they currently have legal access. TIA will integrate three broad categories of information technologies from DARPA and elsewhere: advanced collaboration and decision support tools, language translation, and data search and pattern recognition.

The ultimate goal is an interagency network to collaborate, “connect the dots,” and prevent terrorist attacks.

(Emphasis in the original.)  Adm. Poindexter’s interview with Wired in 2004 likewise emphasized TIA’s analytical rather than acquisitional purpose:

Nothing I worked on had to do with collecting data – we have plenty of that in this country, probably more than we need. Our focus was turning it into useful information.

Nevertheless, IAO and TIA were radioactive.  In 2003, first Adm. Poindexter was forced to step down, then, as one luminary at the New Yorker put it, “responding to public indignation and journalistic ridicule” Congress killed most IAO programs.

Terror and Social Media

Twelve years later, both the government’s need for tools to understand the electronic data available to it and Americans’ privacy concerns have only increased.

Terrorist organizations, terrorists and terror supporters run rampant on social media.  Earlier this month, Lorenzo Vidino and Seamus Hughes of George Washington University’s Program on Extremism published an exhaustive study titled “ISIS in America; from Retweets to Raqqa.”  The report notes:

Social media plays a crucial role in the radicalization and, at times, mobilization of U.S.-based ISIS sympathizers. The Program on Extremism has identified some 300 American and/or U.S.-based ISIS sympathizers active on social media, spreading propaganda, and interacting with like-minded individuals.

Popular Mechanics notes that the average age of foreign fighters joining ISIS is 24, and that “tools like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are what they’ve grown up with.”  PM also described some of the ways ISIS uses social media, including recruitment, intimidation, branding and networking.

ISIS Twitter

[Promoting ISIS on Twitter]

Removing the terrorist presence from social media is not a viable option.  Fortune tells its readers “Why The Social Media Giants can’t Ever Wipe Out ISIS Propaganda.”  Wired likewise writes “Why Facebook and Twitter Can’t Just Wipe Out ISIS Online.”  According to PM:

there is only one certainty in this fight. What ISIS has discovered—this very weird, effective new way of war—is not a novelty or a one-time thing. ISIS may have been the first to wield this cross of social media, terror, and war, but it will not be the last.

DARPA’s proposal from a decade-plus ago – to develop means for various government agencies to quickly share and digest the information available to them – seems prescient and obvious.

One of the exemplar technologies from DARPA’s IAO website, in particular, is immediately relevant in the social media age.  DARPA’s proposal to develop biometric signatures would be invaluable if it could match images from immigration checks at points of entry with terrorists identified from social media or elsewhere.

Two of the November 14 Paris attackers entered Europe on fake passports, and Western intelligence sources have been cited saying ISIS has access to tens of thousands of blank passports.

ISIS is widely believed to have hidden agents among the flood of Syrian refugees, and effective, rapid biometrics might resolve some of the genuine security concerns of nearly unchecked immigration into Europe.

Powerful Tools Mean Powerful Consequences

Valuable as DARPA’s tools might be, they do not address reasonable concerns about government snooping.

All too often the government has used tools legitimate for some purposes illegitimately.  So too the bureaucracy meant to monitor and prevent government abuses is at least perceived as being overly deferential.  The NSA scandal’s secondary impact is reducing trust in government such that good people are denied access to powerful tools for legitimate tools.

Adm. Poindexter was remarkably candid in acknowledging the legitimacy of these concerns in his comments to Wired.  He said that privacy is “an individual right that has to be balanced with concern for the common good. Privacy has to be relative to other objectives – for instance, security.”  He then continued that we, as a nation, do not manage that balance well “at all,” and:

the keepers of the TIA database would gain a tremendous amount of power over American citizens.  Inevitably, some of them will abuse that power…Experience has shown that when large numbers of Americans challenge the government’s policy (for example in Vietnam), some parts of the government react by conducting surveillance and using it against critics.  The unavoidable truth is that a super-database like TIA will lead to super-abuses.

What a miserable state of affairs.  Terrorists openly use social media for recruitment, propaganda and intimidation, among others.  We know they do.  We could probably develop tools to use their brazenness against them.  But our own government’s abuse of power is so extreme and so ubiquitous that we will not entrust it with those tools.  As Adm. Poindexter put it, “in a lot of ways we have the worst of both worlds: no security and no privacy.”

Nevertheless, when people are dying, attention is inevitably drawn to the search for new tools that would enable law enforcement to identify terrorists and interdict attacks.  As I wrote in 2003:

Despite the several legitimate concerns, TIA is a dynamic proposal that may prove invaluable as terrorist attacks against the United States persist.  Considering DARPA’s unparalleled track record in producing paradigm-shifting technology, the TIA proposal should not be dismissed lightly.

TIA is dead and buried.  Perhaps the time has come to resuscitate some of its component technologies.