Federal database spy site fading away

Growing controversy around the Defense Department's shadowy Total Information Awareness project may be the cause of the steady decrease in the project's virtual presence.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
2 min read
Call it the incredibly shrinking government Web site.

As controversy grows over the Defense Department's shadowy Total Information Awareness (TIA) project, the project's virtual presence is steadily decreasing. If fully implemented, TIA would link databases from sources such as credit card companies, medical insurers, and motor vehicle databases for police convenience in hopes of snaring terrorists.

First, biographical information about the TIA project leaders, including retired Adm. John Poindexter, disappeared from the Defense Department's site last month. A mirror that one activist created from Google's cache shows the deleted information included four resumes listing past work experience but no addresses or contact information.

Then, sometime in the last week, the TIA site shrank still more and some links ceased to work. The logo for the TIA project--a Masonic pyramid eyeballing the globe--vanished, a highly unusual step for a government agency. So did the TIA's Latin "scientia est potentia" slogan, which means "knowledge is power."

A spokeswoman for the Information Awareness Office, which runs the TIA project at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), said she had no details on the deletions.

The disappearing documents come as the TIA has become a lighting rod for criticism and as online activists have been turning the tables on Poindexter by reposting his personal information and home telephone number as widely as possible.

The process started with a column in SF Weekly, a San Francisco alternative newspaper, by Matt Smith. He reported Poindexter's home address and telephone number and recounted a brief telephone conversation he had with Poindexter's wife, Linda.

Then John Gilmore, the co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, replied with a widely read essay that urged a broader effort to surveil Poindexter. "Even if some of the information that people end up revealing or using about such targeted scumbags is incorrect, such a public demonstration would highlight the damaging effects that incorrect database information can have on innocent peoples' lives, when used to target them for harassment without due process of law," Gilmore wrote.

The TIA project became public early this year

News.com Special Report
Vision Series 3
20 minds on tech's future

when President Bush chose Poindexter, who was embroiled in the Iran-Contra scandal, to run the Information Awareness Office. But criticism of the project from privacy advocates and newspaper editorial pages has spiked in the last month, and the Web deletions appear to have been in response to the increased public scrutiny.

In November, Defense Department Undersecretary Pete Aldridge defended the TIA program to reporters, saying "there are no privacy issues" at stake with a prototype under development. "The purpose of TIA would be to determine the feasibility of searching vast quantities of data to determine links and patterns indicative of terrorist activities," Aldridge said. "This is an important research project to determine the feasibility of using certain transactions and events to discover and respond to terrorists before they act."