Oct 23, 2006

Tangram's Seven & Seven

Another data-mining effort is in the works.

The government's top intelligence agency is building a computerized system to search very large stores of information for patterns of activity that look like terrorist planning.

The system, which is run by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, is in the early research phases and is being tested, in part, with government intelligence that may contain information on U.S. citizens and other people inside the country. It encompasses existing profiling and detection systems, including those that create "suspicion scores" for suspected terrorists by analyzing very large databases of government intelligence, as well as records of individuals' private communications, financial transactions, and other everyday activities.

The details of the program, called Tangram, are contained in an unclassified document that National Journal obtained from a government contracting Web site. The document, called a "proposer's information packet," is a technical description of Tangram written for potential contractors who would help design and test the system.

The document was written by officials in the research-and-development section of the national intelligence office. A tangram is an old Chinese puzzle that takes seven geometric shapes -- five triangles, a square, and a parallelogram -- and rearranges them into different pictures. ...

Intelligence and privacy experts who reviewed the document said that it reaffirms their long-held belief that many computerized terrorist-profiling methods are largely ineffective. It also raises significant privacy concerns, because to distinguish terrorists from innocent people, a system that's as broad as Tangram purports to be would require access to many databases that contain private information about Americans, the experts said, including credit card transactions, communications records, and even Internet purchases.

"There is no other way that they could do this," said David Holtzman, former chief technology officer of Network Solutions, the company that runs the Internet's domain-naming system, and author of the book Privacy Lost. "They want to investigate real-time ways of spotting patterns" that might indicate terrorist activity, he said. "Telephone calls, for instance, would be an obvious thing you'd feed into this."

The Tangram document doesn't mention privacy protections or a process for monitoring the system's use to guard against abuse. In an interview, Tim Edgar, the deputy civil-liberties protection officer for the national intelligence director, said that Tangram "is a research-and-development program. We have been assured that it's not deployed for operational use."

Asked whether the intelligence used to test Tangram contains information about U.S. persons, defined as U.S. citizens and permanent resident aliens, Edgar said, "It's not being tested with any data that has unminimized information about U.S. persons in it." Minimization procedures are used by intelligence agencies to expunge people's names from official reports and replace them with an anonymous designation, such as U.S. Person No. 1.

Tangram is being tested "only with synthetic data or foreign-intelligence data already being used by analysts that meet Defense Department guidelines for handling of U.S. person information," Edgar said. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence "has not funded and is not planning to fund any contracts for the Tangram program using unminimized data with U.S. persons in it," he said. ...

Last month, the government awarded three contracts for Tangram research and design totaling almost $12 million. Total funding for the program is approximately $49 million. Two of the firms receiving awards -- Booz Allen Hamilton and 21st Century Technologies -- were principal contractors on the TIA (Total Information Awareness, a controversial research program started by the Pentagon in 2002) program. The third company, SRI International, worked on one of TIA's predecessors, the Genoa program. ...

Administration officials have singled out the importance of new technologies in the war on terrorism. President Bush said that the NSA's warrantless surveillance and analysis of phone calls and e-mails protects Americans from attack. Gen. Michael Hayden, the former NSA director, said that were such a system in place before the September 11 attacks, "we would have detected some of the 9/11 Al Qaeda operatives in the United States, and we would have identified them as such."

But the Tangram document presents a more pessimistic assessment of the state of terrorist detection. For instance, researchers want to find ways to distinguish individuals' innocuous activity from that which might appear normal but is really indicative of terrorist plotting. However, the document states that, in large measure, terrorism researchers "cannot readily distinguish the absolute scale of normal behaviors" either for innocent people or for terrorists.

The ACLU's Sparapani called that admission "a bombshell," because the government is acknowledging that current detection systems aren't sophisticated enough to separate terrorists from everyday people. Other outside experts were troubled that such shortcomings also mean that individuals intent on doing harm could be mistaken for innocent people.

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