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Senator presses Pentagon on spy plan

Sen. Ron Wyden raises concerns about a data-mining project and asks the Defense Department for more details about how the system will collect information on Americans.

A key U.S. senator expressed renewed concern about the Pentagon's data-mining project and asked the Defense Department to give more detail about how the system will collect information on Americans.

Sen. Ron Wyden, the Oregon Democrat who wrote legislation requiring a report on the Total Information Awareness project, asked on Tuesday for the Pentagon to respond to 11 pointed questions about the project's scope, its implications for privacy and civil liberties, and which private-sector and government databases would be linked into the system.

"I remain very deeply concerned that TIA technology will be used to plow through large amounts of private information on individual Americans in the United States in search of hypothetical threat situations," Wyden said in a three-page letter to the director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

The Pentagon claims that TIA, which it has renamed to Terrorist Information Awareness in response to public criticism, is a promising collection of technologies that can track patterns in databases and provide advance warning of terrorist incidents. TIA will mine other databases but will not create a master computerized dossier on every American, DARPA says.

Earlier this year, in a triumph of privacy concerns over worries about terrorist threats, Congress required DARPA to prepare a report on what laws would cover a final implementation of TIA. In a 102-page report dated May 20, DARPA said TIA would track transactions that "would form a pattern that may be discernable in certain databases to which the U.S. government would have lawful access."

DARPA did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

In his letter on Tuesday, Wyden asked for additional details about which databases would be tied to TIA. "Does it include credit card activity, ATM activity, wire transfers, loan applications, and/or credit reports?" Wyden asked.

He also asked how DARPA plans to find 1 million photographs for its planned Next Generation Face Recognition program and how much authority a newly formed privacy advisory committee would have.

The TIA project became public in early 2002 when President Bush chose Adm. John Poindexter, who had been embroiled in the Iran-Contra scandal, to run DARPA's Information Awareness Office. Groups such as the U.S. Association for Computing Machinery, the professional association for computer scientists, have urged Congress to place limits on TIA.