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Data Debate

Security or privacy? Darpa's Total Information Awareness program tests the boundaries
Before any of that happens, though, Darpa will have to convince Congress it can pull off the project without trampling civil liberties. Congress passed a law earlier this year that gave Darpa three months to submit a report detailing how funds would be spent on the project, provide an R&D schedule, and explain how Darpa intends to deal with privacy implications. Mihir Kshirsagar, an analyst with the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which opposes the Total Information Awareness project, says part of the concern is that any security layers used by Darpa to protect data "can always be stripped away."

Darpa has tried in recent months to diffuse concerns. The project "is not an attempt to build a 'supercomputer' to snoop into the private lives or track the everyday activities of American citizens," the agency writes in a Q&A posted on its Web site. It adds, "All TIA research complies with all privacy laws, without exception."

Darpa researchers reached a milestone last month when they completed the first set of test data to be used in Total Information Awareness. Speaking at a conference on data privacy, Lt. Col. Doug Dyer, a Darpa program manager, described the test data as "synthetic," or artificial in nature. Darpa also has indicated it could use public-domain data from the media in its experimental system and says that real-world intelligence data from other government agencies, such as the FBI, might eventually be used, too.

The prototype won't scan "irrelevant" personal information about Americans, such as medical records, Dyer says, but it might consider records of over-the-counter drug purchases, which could indicate planning of a bioterrorist attack. Tests so far have resulted in "a large number of false positives," he says.

False positives, and how intelligence agencies might respond to them, are among the things that worry some people about the project, setting the backdrop for this week's report to Congress.

-- with Aaron Ricadela

Illustration by Michael Morgenstern