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24 Mar 07
Nearly four years after Congress pulled the plug on what critics assailed as an Orwellian scheme to spy on private citizens, Singapore is set to launch an even more ambitious incarnation of the Pentagon’s controversial Total Information Awareness program – an effort to collect and mine data across all government agencies in the hopes of pinpointing threats to national security.
The Singapore prototype of the system – dubbed Risk Assessment and Horizon Scanning, or RAHS – was rolled out early this week at a conference in the Southeast Asia city-state. Retired U.S. Adm. John Poindexter, the architect of the original Pentagon program, traveled to Singapore to deliver a speech at the unveiling, while backers have already begun quietly touting the system to U.S. intelligence officials.
In 2003, plans for Total Information Awareness, or TIA, sparked outrage among privacy advocates. TIA was one of several programs run out of the Information Awareness Office at Darpa, the Pentagon’s advanced research projects agency. Fueling public indignation was news that Poindexter, President Reagan’s national security adviser and a key figure in the ’80s Iran-Contra scandal, was in charge of the office.
Facing an avalanche of bad publicity, Poindexter resigned in August 2003. Congress pulled funding for the program, and TIA and related programs were either terminated or moved to other agencies. The Information Awareness Office was closed.
But Poindexter’s vision never lost currency among advocates of data mining, particularly in Singapore, a country that mixes elements of democratic governance with authoritarian rule.
While different in design from TIA, the RAHS system shares some intellectual roots with the doomed Darpa effort. The two principal consultants for RAHS are John Peterson, of the Virginia-based Arlington Institute, and Dave Snowden, who was previously supported by Poindexter’s office within Darpa, and is now the chief scientific officer of Cognitive Edge, a Singapore-based company.
Peterson, a futurist, describes RAHS as a system that monitors multiple feeds of data — both open and classified — to detect possible threats. “Essentially it’s a strategic tool that ties together every one of the agencies in a government into a large network that is constantly scanning the horizon looking for weak signals that point toward the possibility of a significant event that would have important implications for Singapore,” he said.
Snowden’s work at Cognitive Edge concentrates on automated software to detect such “weak signals” that would normally be passed over by human analysts. “Instead of having analysts trawl through huge amounts of data to decide what it means, the data is tagged very quickly, then they decide what the patterns in the metadata mean,” said Snowden.
While terrorism is a driving factor for RAHS, it was the SARS epidemic – which crippled Singapore’s economy – that prompted interest in the technology, according to Patrick Nathan, deputy director of the Singapore National Security Coordination Center. “We are studying the application of the RAHS concepts and tools to the social, and economic and financial domains,” Nathan wrote in an e-mail interview.
Whether terrorism or epidemics, Singapore’s rapid acceptance of data mining is a breath of fresh air to the system’s designers. “Singapore is small and has this intrinsic sense of paranoia,” Peterson said.
“I think we would have been stuck in Darpa doing experimental research for another 15 years without anyone making it operational,” Snowden said. “Singapore just walked around and saw what they liked, and said, ‘The hell with it, let’s just make it operational,’ which is much more pragmatic and forward-thinking.”
While the controversial Darpa efforts were never more than research, RAHS is set to launch with five different agencies in September. Eventually, RAHS would extend across Singapore’s entire government, a plan that makes it the most ambitious data-snooping effort in the world.
Those involved in the Singapore system are well aware of the brouhaha over TIA, but say they are less concerned about RAHS. Snowden pointed out that although RAHS would pore through everything from health records to raw intelligence, only the “metadata” is shared among agencies, and not the data itself.
Likewise, officials in Singapore are thinking about the privacy debate. Nathan said that at this stage, RAHS will focus on “open-source information” until the procedures for classified data can be worked out. In parallel, Singapore is running a pilot project on data anonymization, he added.
Steven Aftergood, head of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy, said that while he wasn’t familiar with RAHS, privacy issues are important in any data-mining system. “Some government officials attempt to finesse the privacy issue by insisting that individual records and data will not normally be shared or subject to examination by a human observer so, they argue, there is no real infringement on privacy,” he wrote in an e-mail. “But that doesn’t get to the heart of the issue. Personal privacy is compromised whenever one is subject to unwanted surveillance, even by a machine.”
For Snowden, the balance between privacy and security is more clear-cut. “If somebody can use a little bit of software that connects up the conversation between somebody trying to get into Britain, and four or five stories told by parents of pupils in a school in an area with a high Islamic population, and some police intelligence reports, and see there’s a pattern, I think that’s a good thing,” he said.
Of course Snowden concedes that how the public views the privacy issue depends on “how people explain it and how it’s sold.”
That’s where the conference in Singapore comes in. The goal of the symposium, which took place Monday and Tuesday, was “to expose this thing to the international world,” said the Arlington Institute’s Peterson. Officials from the United Kingdom, Australia, the United States, New Zealand and Israel were invited to attend.
The conference follows a visit to Washington, D.C., the first week in March by a Singapore delegation to discuss RAHS with U.S. intelligence and Homeland Security officials. The Singaporeans had on their agenda meetings with Charles Allen, DHS’ assistant secretary for intelligence and analysis, and Patrick Neary, strategy chief for National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell, according to the PR firm hired by the Singapore government to publicize the trip, though the planned meeting with Neary didn’t take place. Neither DHS nor the Office of the Director of National Intelligence would comment on their interest in the program.
Poindexter, who was also on the roster of people the Singaporeans were scheduled to meet with in the United States, never quite disappeared from the data-mining scene. In January of this year, he was elected to the board of BrightPlanet, a firm that boasts “the most powerful search, harvest and document federation technology available in the world.” The company’s press release announcing Poindexter’s appointment noted the former national security adviser would “provide guidance in developing further contacts within the intelligence community.”
As for Poindexter’s association with RAHS and his appearance at this week’s conference, Nathan noted that meetings with the former Darpa manager are consultative. “We have no formal relationship with John Poindexter but have met him to exchange ideas and perspectives,” he said.
Whether formal or informal, everyone involved in RAHS is aware that Poindexter has proved a lightning rod for critics of data mining. Recalling the events that led to the closing of Poindexter’s office, Snowden, who describes himself as “on the left politically,” was candid about the man he still calls a friend.
“He’s a genius,” Snowden said, “but he’s a naive genius; he didn’t realize how it was going to be picked up.”