Intelligence: December 30, 2002

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The U.S. government's proposed TIA (Total Information Awareness) Program is under attack as unworkable and a threat to civil liberties. TIA is a system, which actually already exists and is being tested, that links into existing databases for things like credit card transactions, police records and other information. The idea behind TIA is that potential terrorists would lead a distinct lifestyle that could be picked up by a computer program scanning billions of records. While some say this approach is not practical, it's already been used. During the late 1970s, West Germany's BKA (Federal Crime Office) developed such a system using more primitive technology than is available today. Actually, the German search was even more difficult. The terrorists were disaffected children of middle and upper class German families, who used their parents lifestyle habits as cover. But the BKA system found them, one by one, unless they escaped to exile in East Germany. When the terrorist faded in the 1980s, the BKA system was dismantled. While the US is justly proud of its Bill of Rights, the Germans have, in many areas, even stricter protections for individual privacy. The BKA TIA was seen as a potential threat to that privacy, and was not really needed now that the terrorism threat was gone. But now the Germans are discussing bringing their 1970s TIA back, to deal with al Qaeda. The American system would probably have no trouble finding suspects. There are more electronic transactions (some recorded even if you pay cash), including e-mail, online shopping, travel reservations, A.T.M.s, cell phones, electronic toll-collection systems and all those credit-card transactions to look at. In fact, for years police have been using many of these transactions for criminal investigations. A larger system would cast a wider net for criminals that move around a lot and are better at covering their tracks. But the fear of government abuse of such a system makes setting up TIA a political hot potato. It becomes a toss up as to whether the party in power will take more abuse for setting up TIA, or having another terrorist attack that might have been stopped by TIA. That said, systems like TIA do work, and they can be dismantled after the threat has passed. 

 


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