TCS Daily


The Rising TIDE: Should We Fear the Anti-Terror Database?

By Robert Haddick - March 27, 2007 12:00 AM

A recent article in the Washington Post lifted the veil a bit on the U.S. government's massive, and still growing, anti-terror database. Over 400,000 names are now considered worthy of government suspicion, but citizens that end up on this list are not entitled to know why their names arrived there or what the government does with their files. Yet there has not been a significant terror attack on U.S. soil since 2001. Is the government's database the reason for this apparent success? How long will the government's list of suspicious names become? Is the government's ever-expanding scope of surveillance worth the security it seems to be creating? If not, are there any better alternatives?

The Washington Post article had this to say about the U.S. government's database effort:

"Each day, thousands of pieces of intelligence information from around the world -- field reports, captured documents, news from foreign allies and sometimes idle gossip -- arrive in a computer-filled office in McLean, where analysts feed them into the nation's central list of terrorists and terrorism suspects.

"Called TIDE, for Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, the list is a storehouse for data about individuals that the intelligence community believes might harm the United States. It is the wellspring for watch lists distributed to airlines, law enforcement, border posts and U.S. consulates, created to close one of the key intelligence gaps revealed after Sept. 11, 2001: the failure of federal agencies to share what they knew about al-Qaeda operatives.

[...]

"TIDE has also created concerns about secrecy, errors and privacy. The list marks the first time foreigners and U.S. citizens are combined in an intelligence database. The bar for inclusion is low, and once someone is on the list, it is virtually impossible to get off it.

[...]

"'How many are on the lists, how are they compiled, how is the information used, how do they verify it?' asked Lillie Coney, associate director of the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center. Such information is classified, and individuals barred from traveling are not told why."

An Assault on Civil Liberties?

The civil liberties concerns created by TIDE are both obvious and frightening. When linked to bank account, credit card, airline, rental car, visa, and other databases, it would be simple for a government intelligence analyst to monitor the movements, actions, and purchases of a given person at a near-real time rate. Intelligence analysts could also employ computer analysis of patterns and trends to predict future threatening behavior. Yet it is this very monitoring and forecasting that has most likely prevented another spectacular terrorist attack from occurring inside the United States.

Naturally, TIDE's very success could lead directly to its greatest danger. Such an apparently successful program will be rewarded with more funding, more analysts, and more pressure to solve more problems. There would seem to be no natural limit to the size of the database, nor any meaningful pressure to reveal to the public more of the program's secret methods.

Yet if high-tech government surveillance, greatly enhanced by comprehensive databases and sophisticated search algorithms, are objectionable, are there other more palatable alternatives to preventing the next spectacular terrorist attack?

Has the "War on Terror" Gone Too Far?

One alternative is to consider the possibility that American society has overreacted to the 9/11 attacks. Indeed, Mr. Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former U.S. National Security Advisor, recently argued this point. He blamed the Bush administration, the media industry, and security firms, among others, for creating an unnecessary climate of fear inside the United States.

Applying much greater weight to the other side of the argument is the 9/11 Commission and its weighty report. The 9/11 Commission excoriated the Clinton and Bush administrations for demonstrating a lack of imagination about the terrorist threat, for being complacent, and for tolerating a disorganized and uncoordinated government effort against terrorist organizations. The TIDE database program is a direct response to the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission (see pages 20-25 of the 9/11 Commission report Executive Summary).

Deserved or not, the media and critics of the Bush administration have endowed the work of the 9/11 Commission with great prestige. For now, no current or future U.S. policymakers would dare scale back the government's terrorist database programs, a principal recommendation of the esteemed 9/11 Commission.

Civil liberties defenders might assert that military action over the past several years has crippled the effectiveness of the al Qaeda terror organization. The capture of Khalid Sheik Mohammed and other top al Qaeda operational figures may have eliminated the global reach of the organization. Or maybe not. Attacks still occurred in Madrid, London, and elsewhere. And others will argue that the aggressive U.S. military campaign abroad is only inspiring more Islamic youths to jihad, while also providing them with wonderful training opportunities and experienced instructors. It is unlikely that those most concerned about civil liberties in the U.S. would simultaneously argue for more aggressive American military action elsewhere in the world.

A "Reformed" Database Program

Of course, the choice between having a government anti-terror database or not is a false choice. Should it not be possible to have a database surveillance program that also contains appropriate civil liberties safeguards and proper Congressional oversight? Naturally; few would deny that such an intrusive government tool should remain under strict supervision.

The problem is knowing how far to rein in the government's surveillance. The longer the country goes without a terror attack and the farther the pendulum swings toward protecting cherished civil liberties, the greater the risk of carving back the database program's capabilities too far. The country might discover how far "too far" is only after infiltrators have succeeded in striking.

The rapid expansion in the size and power of the U.S. government's anti-terrorist database surveillance should concern the public. It seems to be an axiom of government that successful programs started with the best of intentions must eventually turn into monsters. On the other hand, no American politician would dare defy the 9/11 Commission or risk loosening the country's security for no apparent political gain. Meanwhile it remains prudent to assume that al Qaeda and its followers persist in their quest to engineer another spectacular attack.

The 2008 election in the United States provides an opportunity for the country to discuss the trade-off between liberty and security. The TIDE database and its uses could be the center of this conversation.

The author was a U.S. Marine Corps infantry company commander and staff officer. He was the global research director for a large private investment firm and is now a private investor. His blog is Westhawk. He is a TCS contributing writer.


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14 Comments

rising tide, or ebb flow?
The implications are incredible. Just imagine if such a system, with such computer power had been in place years ago. In such case they might have actually caught the commie spies who infiltrated the Manhattan Project(although some liberals still deny that it was infiltrated, or that at least the Soviets were an ally then and thus deserved to have the secrets, or at least because they were in favour of the Soviets). Indeed they might have also caught all the ones they later discovered all over government departments. They also might have known that Berthold Brecht would defect to EAST Germany right after he claimed he wasn't a commie. Let's hope it will now lead to an ebb-flow of terrorists.

So do you take a medium or large
Allunimum hat?

:-)

Being in the data industry...
I can say that this database probably has nothing on the databases that monitor your consumer habits. Especially for those of you who buy all things online.

For those of you who fear this DB just consider that it is impossible to monitor all of the names on the list. Predictive programs and ingenious engineering require humans to actually understand and analyze the results.

If you are against the government compiling such a database then you should also be against the selling of such data warehouses by banks, corporations, political parties, healthcare organizations, web businesses, and many other governmental agencies.

Using DBs to track suspected terrorists is a far more valid use of data than a great many other uses your personal data is being used for. That this data is sometimes inaccurate or makes unjustified connections is the nature of this particular beast.

I have built such data constructs before and considering the haste at which this one was implemented, and given its size, it is no wonder that the process of entering suspects has not been finely tuned or that people have been wrongly entered.

The question is: do you really own the data you generate by living in a connected world?

Casting the net wide
There's no need to speculate as to what might be done with this security database. We can see exactly what has happened every time a security apparatus has been allowed to gather clandestine databases on us.

An organization like the FBI under Hoover (the preeminent example) will always find it much easier to gather data on dissidents and protesters than on actual subversives. Why? Because they stick up and make noise! The subversives operate in secret, and make it a point not to make phone calls. So the easy hits are always on people who intend to commit no harm.

This allows a database to be created with names of people who are not actual enemies of the government, much less enemies of Americans. And because these people are just acting normally, they DO make phone calls. And every person they call is dutifully added to the list. Which grows and grows.

Before many years have elapsed, the size of the list is gargantuan, and the efforts of the agency are swamped just entering new data daily. If there are any actual bad guys caught in the net, their signals are drowned out in reams of noise. Thus the effort becomes progressively more expensive, intrusive and nonproductive.

This is why they always have to have an intelligence shakeup every few years. No one has yet found a way to focus narrowly on actual bad guys. Meanwhile they track everyone who's ever appeared in a demonstration or peace rally, and these ordinary citizens suddenly find it's harder to get a passport, r a job with the government.

Compromising our security
For once we agree-- or maybe this is the second time.

The broad base of the information system is the consumer database, and it has been thoroughly compromised by the federal "intel" apparatus. Very few in number are the companies that haven't mutely given over their entire DB to the feds, and agreed to keep quiet about it. AT&T, for instance, has given the feds access to nearly every phone call in the country, all without benefit of warrants.

That's the reason they are not happy with the need for even the very lax warrants available from the FISA court. Even FISA rules don't cover getting everything, from everyone, all the time.

And I don't worry about Big Brother having all this info, per se. He's not that competent. What I'm far more concerned with is every time some federal gumshoe leaves his PC in his back seat and parks his car up by Scott Circle, his date's pimp lifts the PC while he's busy, complete with your SS number and mine on its hard drive, for instant resale to information thieves.

Remember all the fuss over CAPPS II? The problem there was not Big Brother. It was the idea that airlines would report enough data on their passengers to crosslink them with the DB from Equifax, and our entire credit histories would be available to thieves. Equifax may have excellent security measures in places. But the feds could really not care less. Computer security is not among their fortes. Our privacy concerns are not their area of interest.

We hear about stuff getting stolen all the time. It's only a matter of time until some of these straying PCs get sold to really smart criminals. Or, just as likely, a very smart information thief gets a low level job transcribing reports inside the NSA or some such agency, and takes everything home with her at night.

Don't think they all have track records. The first thing they do is to recruit someone young who can pass a security investigation. It's the first timers who get you cold, every time.

On the other hand
There has to be a means to track these people so it is a double edged sword.

We should have an Anti-Terror database...
...however we shouldn't allow it to negatively affect people’s lives. If John Doe warrants some suspicion because he works with 2 people who have links to terrorist organizations and his best friend’s brother is suspected of raising money for terrorism that's all fine and dandy. Just don't let it keep him from boarding an airplane or otherwise inconveniencing him in any way.

If these lists are going to be used to restrict movement or employment, people should have a right to know why they are on the list and to challenge their placement on these lists. We also need oversight to insure that these lists don't become a dangerous political tool.

Amazing indeed
>"For once we agree-- or maybe this is the second time."

We have actually agreed on more than four topics that I can remember. It is just hard to remember since it happens so little.

Like counting ants in a swarm
You talk as though we only have the two choices-- track no one or track everyone.

A proper program would have oversight and a sunset clause. Periodically a board independent of those putting people into the database would review the files and recommend pulling people out of the database. Then they could hash out their choices for exclusion with the people who ordered their inclusion. The object would be to keep the number of trackees down to a manageable total. Certainly less than we have now.

Otherwise you end up with millions of people to keep track of. And that just can't be done. Our best case in point was that on 9/10, 2001 we did have several of the bombers in our database. Only we didn't know it... because we couldn't keep track of everyone whose movements we were trying to follow.

It's called data management.

Should we fear the government information gathering? Absolutely!!!
Amazing! Not the author or any commentor asks if this activity is Constitutional? Where in the Constitution does the government get its power to do this? What about the 4th and 10th ammendments? Those old sticklers. I just read article 1 section 8 of the Constitution and it never mentions the ability of Congress to gather data on innocent citizens. What if I don't want to play? Can I opt out?

This is a blatant power grab by the US Government in an effort to crush the rights of its citizens and stealing their money in an effort to do something directly against the Constitution. And they get to build a bigger government in doing so. It is not material if the program is successful or not. It is still totalitarian and is a overly forceful response to a mass murder.

I would expect this from this administration and congress and court that lets this and other violations of freedom go unnoticed.

Consumers are tracked by credit card companies and the like but there is a very good way to beat this: Deal only in cash, inconvient yes but easily traced no. Or tell your credit card companies that you will not use their cards if they report you to the credit reporting agencies, or better yet start your own company that does not use credit reporting agencies.

So we are left with hundreds of thousands if not millions of fellow innocent citizens on the watch lists of the FBI, NSA, Post Office, FAA etc. These agencies are only watching their movements and behaviors and again we don't know what else they are up to.

What about mistakes? Do individuals get compensated for errors? Don't answer. The government never makes mistakes....

aluminum hat?
I don't know what that means since I'm not a native speaker of English. But does it mean that the MP wasn't infiltrated by russians, or that you're just one of the liberals who denies it? Or do you mean that they didn't actually catch any other ones? Or do you mean that you believed BB when he before the committe that he wasn't a communist? Or does it mean you are one of the 'useful idiots' and are embarassed by it?

here's a good example
Many of you are worried about such things as, they check out noone or everyone etc. But I have an example where they didn't have the effect of: bothering everyone, catching innocents, leading to big brother, stroking government incompetants, etc. Does anyone remember when the Baader-Meinhof gang and the Red Brigades etc. were operating as terrorists in Germany? These were not just crazy jerk off jokers like the ones burning effigees of american soldiers this week in Portland, but REAL terrorists, who were undercover, very professional and knew all the trade craft. So the German govnmt got really, really scared, but they were unable to act effectively because of the post war legal restrictions. So they asked themselves, and some old guys, what would the gestapo have done to catch these guys. Then they secretly went about useing well known and proven effective methods to identify, locate, and wipe out the entire gang. And they did this all without reenstating nazzisim, without bothering innocent people, they ignored all the nuns and school girls, etc. When it was all over, they then went back to the status quo ante, and pretended nothing happened. Do Americans really want to catch terrorists, or are they more concerned about not offending, say the reporters at the new york times who keep writing phoney stories?

Results do not matter. Liberty and limited government do.
It is amazing how often big government folks slip little security and welfare programs into the system that are supposedly temporary. It is amazing that they actually stopped their NAZI style program.

But Germany does not have our Constitution and there is not threat to the Constitution from terrorists!!!!!! There are threats to civillians from terrorists but NOT the Constitution. It will exist, although watered down by Warfare Staters and Welfare Staters alike, long after the terrorist die, quit or fade away.

Agreed-and some Elaboration
I had a computer science teacher (and this was like 20 years ago) who learned his craft working for the government in "secure applications". fter he left his post to teach algorithmic processes-he met with a former colleague over a few beverages.

In a bit of ethyl based bravado-this teacher found out his former colleague was able to produce a fifty page dossier in a couple of weeks -keep in mind this was when COBOL still ruled and a 4.77mhz processor was a screamer, and connected to the outside only wth 5.25 inch real floppies.

The data was mostly gathered from private sources. It is laughable to the outrage people get about being watched, when the real watching has been going on for decades.

Does your pizza place have a POS system? Well, ten they are collecting all sorts of data on your favorite toopings, ordering habits, credit card....It was the big topic at last week's Los Vegas Pizza convention.



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