By Barry Steinhardt, director the ACLU Technology and Liberty Project.
Yesterday’s report in The Wall Street Journal about the NSA’s domestic spy dragnets should be major, major news. It is nothing less than the return of TIA: "Total Information Awareness." Yet there has been barely any followup coverage of the story in the mainstream media. I know the media thinks the sexual behavior of the governor of New York is earth-shatteringly important for American life – but this NSA report actually is.
I mean, when we warn about a "surveillance society," is what we’re talking about. This is it, this is the ballgame. Mass data from a wide variety of sources – including the private sector – is being collected and scanned by a secretive military spy agency. This represents nothing less than a major change in American life – and unless stopped the consequences of this system for everybody will grow in magnitude along with the rivers of data that are collected about each of us – and that’s more and more every day.
The TIA program, you may recall, was a massive Pentagon plan (run by Admiral John Poindexter of Iran-Contra fame) to tap into as many databases containing personal information about Americans as possible (program materials listed "Financial, Education, Travel, Medical, Veterinary, Country Entry, Place/Event Entry, Transportation, Housing, Critical Resources, Government, Communications"). All that information would then be pulled together and scanned for "suspicious" patterns. Given the density of the "data trails" that we all create in our daily lives today and in the future, it was a recipe for the routine surveillance of Americans and their every move.
TIA was supposed to have been killed off by Congress in 2003 amid widespread objections to its sweeping Orwellian scope. There have been always been hints about a secret annex to the law that permitted some limited aspects of TIA to operate within the Pentagon’s black budget for intelligence and with respect to foreigners only. Now it appears that, like a vampire that can’t be killed except with a stake through its heart, TIA has arisen again from its coffin in full body with its voracious appetite for privacy of Americans and foreigners alike.
The reporter on the Journal piece, Siobhan Gorman, describes stunning new spying capabilities that flow from a distributed collection of new domestic spying capabilities (each of which the ACLU has long warned against):
In the ongoing battle over FISA and the NSA’s warrantless spying program (which appears to be but one part of this larger effort), the government has been saying in effect, "trust us." Why should we trust an agency that has been running this secret program in contravention of the Wyden Amendment, the law passed by Congress shutting down TIA.
It’s time for Congress to find out exactly what is going on here, inform the public, and put a stop to what appears to be the construction of a sweeping infrastructure for the routine mass surveillance of innocent people.