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TIA was never more than a research project. But other initiatives were moving ahead at the same time.

For example, in 2002 officials from the Transportation Security Administration asked JetBlue Airways to provide detailed passenger information to Torch Concepts, a company in Huntsville, AL, that was developing a data mining system even more invasive than the one envisioned by DARPA. ­JetBlue was eager to help: five million passenger records were transferred. The records, which included passenger names, addresses, phone numbers, and itineraries, were then combined, or “fused,” with a demographic database purchased from a marketing services company called Acxiom. That second database specified passengers’ gender, income, occupation, and Social Security number; whether they rented or owned their home; how many years they had lived at their current address; how many children they had; how many adults lived in their household; and how many vehicles they owned.

Torch Concepts identified “several distinctive travel patterns” in the data and concluded that “known airline terrorists appear readily distinguishable from the normal JetBlue passenger patterns,” according to a company PowerPoint presentation unearthed by travel writer and privacy activist Edward Hasbrouck and publicized by Wired News on September 18, 2003. A media uproar ensued, but a 2004 report from the Department of Homeland Security ultimately concluded that no criminal laws had been broken, because JetBlue provided the data directly to Torch and not to the federal government. (JetBlue did violate its own privacy policy, however.)

Another data fusion project launched in the wake of 9/11 was the Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange (Matrix), which was also shut down amid privacy concerns. According to a report by the DHS Privacy Office, the system was designed to allow law enforcement agencies in different states to easily search one another’s computers, although the system “was over-sold as a pattern analysis tool for anti-terrorism purposes.” The report found that Matrix was late in forming its privacy policy and that it “lacked adequate audit controls.” Public support fell off, states pulled out, and the project was terminated.

Since then, a number of states and cities have partnered with DHS to create so-called “fusion centers,” with the goal of helping sensitive information flow between federal, state, and even local law enforcement agencies. There were 58 fusion centers around the country by February 2009, according to the department’s website, and DHS spent more than $254 million to support them between 2004 and 2007.

Few details of what actually happens at these centers have been made public. But in April 2008, Jack Tomarchio, then the department’s principal deputy undersecretary for intelligence and analysis, told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs that information from two U.S. fusion centers had been passed to a foreign government, which set up a terrorism investigation as a result. “DHS received a letter expressing that country’s gratitude for the information,” he testified. “This information would not have been gleaned without state and local participation.”

At least in the eyes of the Bush administration, sacrificing the privacy of Americans to the security of the country had proved well worthwhile. But now the pendulum is swinging back, showing once again that our republic values privacy and will act to protect it from abuses–eventually.

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Credit: Istvan Banyai

Tagged: Computing, Business, security, privacy, social networking, social media, data privacy, identity theft

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