Why the Pentagon will watch where you shop
New Total Information Awareness project will sniff company databases for terrorists.
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Similarly, shouldn't an alarm bell go off if three known terrorists board planes within minutes of each other, he asks.Skip to next paragraph
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The government should be able to have this technology up and running within a year, McKnight says. Some of the more advanced - like voice recognition and face recognition - may take longer.
The key seems to be in information sharing among departments. The CIA, for example, had information linking at least two hijackers to Al Qaeda before Sept. 11, and knew they were in the US. But CIA employees did not get the names into FBI or State Department computer systems. If it had, at least those two may have been prohibited from boarding planes.
Getting government agencies, who have guarded information for their own reasons for decades, to cooperate is one thing. Motivating credit card, telephone, and other private companies to share valuable marketing information, like a customer's personal shopping practices, is another.
"A credit-card company that knows your purchasing patterns can market to you in a way that makes you happier, and makes you a better customer," says Jean Camp, an expert on the interaction of technical design and social systems at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "It's good for them not to share that information."
(Attention shoppers: think those strategically timed $25-rebates from your favorite clothier.)
Moreover, the technology to mine these data sources is there, but developing systems to "talk" to other systems is much more challenging. Professor Camp says it was pretty easy to develop an online checking account system. But it has been much more difficult to get those programs to talk to banks, all of which have their own coded systems. She says it's the same with most industries - getting those systems to talk are multiyear projects.
Germany is one country that has long experience with this. In the 1970s, its federal police pulled together databases from private and public records. From crosschecking data, they were able to determine where terrorists belonging to the Red Brigades Faction lived, and even the places they frequently visited.
After the group was crushed, Germany's privacy protections were enhanced. But this past fall, Germany attempted to launch the world's largest computer dragnet after it was discovered that the principal 9/11 hijackers had lived in Germany while plotting their attacks.
Some 4,000 German companies were asked by the police to dump their electronic files into the government's database. The plan was to run all these transactions through a computer against a basic profile of hijackers - men 18 to 40 years old from Arab or Muslim countries with technical expertise or training.
Only 212 of the 4,000 companies reportedly complied with the request to give up their records, due to privacy concerns.
It also became evident that German states each had their own systems of coding, as did private companies.
"They haven't got far due to the incompatibility of computers between states and the federal government," a German official says.
The program has now stopped and has been outsourced to a private company to determine how to develop a new computer system, like the one the Pentagon is trying to design.