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In 2003, Poindexter resigned and Congress cancelled TIA, which, by then, had been renamed Terrorism Information Awareness. That ended the story. Or so it seemed.
John Poindexter led the Total Information Awareness program for DARPA.
(Photo by Robert O'Harrow, Jr.)
"They all liked it; they all thought it was great. But they didn't want to touch it. Now there's a keen interest in what was done here," says Brian Sharkey, a former Darpa official.
He launched the original concept of Total Information Awareness back in 1999. Now working for a major defense contractor, Sharkey stays in close touch with U.S. intelligence agencies. He says they're taking a closer look now that Poindexter's departure has taken TIA off the front pages.
"So I'm briefing folks on, you know, what we were really thinking and doing," says Sharkey, "and now they're interested in how can they absorb these kinds of thoughts and technical processes into their particular problems."
It's not just the federal government that's adopting these dazzling, new, data searching tools. Local cops are now using personal information about Americans almost as routinely as they use their police radios.
Our next stop: Philadelphia, for the annual International Association of Chiefs of Police technology expo.
The cavernous hall is filled - every square foot of it, it seems - with vendors selling high tech gear: face recognition software, surveillance cameras that see in the dark, and of course, data.
Several big information companies have booths: ChoicePoint, whose data center we visited in Boca Raton; Orion Scientific - its intelligence software figured in the Denver Spyfiles scandal; and Hank Asher's former company, Seisint. It's giving closed-door demonstrations of Matrix, the powerful data-analysis system Asher took to the White House.
A salesman for Lexis-Nexis is giving a sales pitch to a police chief from rural Kansas. "We have a lot of derogatory information on people: judgments, liens, bankruptcy information," says the salesman, Paul Walker. Lexis-Nexis is best known for its news and law databases but is now a key player in homeland security programs and the new owner of the Matrix system. Walker shows Chief Jay Reyes how he could use Lexis-Nexis' services to learn about people quickly.
"Uh, this is probably a lot larger than what our agency would need," says Reyes.
Walker persists. "OK. Tell you what. I'll have somebody call you and just come out and do a demo, give you a trial."
"If nothing else, give your detectives a test drive."
Jay Reyes is from Fort Scott, Kansas - population, 8,000.
"Back home sometimes those folks don't understand it," says Reyes. "They still get wrapped up over issues of social security number and anything like that."
Reyes says he himself has a "worldly" view about the use of personal data in police work.
"It's kind of a necessary evil," says Reyes.
But he says new measures are needed to prevent cops from abusing these powerful tools.
"I think the sanctions and the punishment when you're caught misusing it have to be very severe. Otherwise, we run the risk of really becoming kind of like a totalitarian state, and that's not good; that's not America."
Continue to Part 4