Robert L. Popp
Position: Deputy director, U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Information Awareness Office Issue: Terrorism Information Awareness. This DARPA project, formerly known as Total Information Awareness, seeks better technologies to detect terrorist attacks but has roused the ire of privacy advocates.
Personal Point of Impact: Co-program manager, Terrorism Information Awareness
Technology Review: There have been wildly varying reports about what Terrorism Information Awareness seeks to do. Some groups opposed to the project have said it includes efforts to link public and private databases, with information ranging from consumer buying habits to medical records, into a giant “metabase.” Is there any truth to this?
Robert Popp: First off, let’s talk about what Terrorism Information Awareness, or TIA [TEE-ah], is. It’s a visionary R&D program that is developing and integrating a variety of information technologies into a prototype system/network to detect and preempt foreign terrorist attacks. As technologists, we are trying to provide the foreign intelligence, counterintelligence, and counterterrorism communities with prototype information technology that will lead to better collaboration, analysis, and decision-making. If we successfully transition these technologies to the operational agencies, we think government decision-makers will be empowered with knowledge about terrorist planning and preparation activities that will help them make informed decisions to prevent attacks from occurring against the United States.
TR: Will TIA look at U.S. citizens to do any of that?
Popp: No. TIA is not a domestic surveillance capability, nor is any U.S. citizen’s privacy changing as a result of TIA. That’s one thing that’s been widely reported, and nothing could be further from the truth. We are providing operational agencies within the Defense Department and intelligence community with analytical tools that we hope will improve their ability to counter terrorism. These agencies are experimenting with the TIA tools using data and databases they currently have available to them, in accordance with existing laws, regulations, and policies.
TR: So you’re not scanning databases.
Popp: Correct. We’re not developing technology that will surreptitiously scan or pull data out of a database. TIA is also not creating a grand database of dossiers on U.S. citizens, or developing collections technology to mine transactional or other kinds of data on U.S. citizens that is prohibited by law.
TR: What kinds of information constitute transactional data?
Popp: Examples might be the purchase of airline tickets to potential attack sites for reconnaissance, the purchase of materials for some kind of bomb, different types of communications transactions-
TR: Like this phone conversation, or an e-mail?
Popp: Yes. Phone conversations, e-mails, chat messages, newswire stories, et cetera, are all examples of what we consider to be communications transactions.
TR: Where do you think the false perceptions about your work come from?
Popp: Back in November of 2002, as the Homeland Security Bill was being passed, a national newspaper published a column that asserted the bill would permit DARPA to create a system – TIA – to continuously update electronic dossiers on the transactions of every American. As I said earlier, nothing could be further from the truth. But unfortunately a lot of news outlets and Web sites picked up the story and printed this information as if it were fact.
In retrospect, we could have been-and should have been-more outspoken in the public and with Congress about what we were and were not doing in TIA to straighten out the record. The program’s name change is designed to help clear up the confusion, to make it absolutely clear that the goals of TIA are to protect the U.S. and its citizens from foreign terrorist threats, period.
TR:So what are the technologies being developed under TIA?
Popp: In broad terms, the technologies we’re focused on are collaboration, analysis, and decision support tools; foreign-language translation; pattern recognition and predictive modeling; databases and privacy protection; and biometrics. We have numerous programs developing these technologies, and TIA is the program that integrates these technologies into a unified network/system.