U.S. build a cyber "ligne Maginot"

Here is an article about TIA which I wrote for the January 28, 2004 issue of Les Echos, which is the leading business daily newspaper in France with an average paid circulation of 118,000 copies per issue.


Column: Les Echos innovation

Headline: Survey – U.S. build a cyber « ligne Maginot »

Introductory paragraph: To fight the terrorism which targets its country, the U.S. government is developing new software and hardware. But some experts think that they will not be effective, and others fear that they will endanger human rights.


A month ago, at Christmas time, the French government, alerted by the U.S. information agencies, cancelled six Air France flights to Los Angeles. By cross-referencing the files of the passengers with their own databases, Washington, D.C.’s intelligence agencies believed they held a suspect. In fact, there had been a homonym. A terrorist name had been badly transcribed, then confused with the name of a passenger.

This error illustrates the difficulties raised by the incredible technological challenge into which Washington will blow hundreds of millions dollars: to develop information processing systems able to detect in advance any Al-Qaida action. This program has a tactical and technical postulate. The first conviction is to apply to the anti-terrorist fight a method already used against other forms of criminality, in particular against money laundering: identify the criminals by tracing messages they have exchanged with commercial partners (banks, airlines, hotels, etc.). «All commercial transactions must be exploited to discover the terrorists. These people emit a signal we must spot among other transactions. It’s very similar to the anti-submarine fight where it is necessary to locate the submarines among an ocean of noises», a high-level manager at the U.S. Department of Defense explains.

Confidence in technology

The second conviction is technological: the data-processing tools will be soon powerful enough to analyze all materials that are electronically exchanged in the world. American history is marked by technological prowess, from the transcontinental railroad to the space shuttle. It should come as no surprise, then, that few are questioning this new application of data processing. «Confidence in the technique is one of the characteristics of the American people», Guillaume Parmentier, director of the French Center on the United States, affiliated with the Ifri (French Institute of the international relations) recalls. «It is even truer in the governmental circles close to the business world. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld believes that technology can solve everything.» «That’s not a dream», advances a researcher in data processing, who knows U.S. intelligence agencies. «With Echelon, their giant network of scanners, the federal agencies are able to listen to the majority of messages exchanged in a digital form, in a country. Admittedly, afterwards, it is necessary to transcribe and sort all the files. But these experts can already analyze all the TV or radio waves in the United States, with a 20 percent margin of error. Then, making a kind of Google for spies, by indexing all the electronic communications exchanged in the world, is no longer science fiction.»

Pre-selection of the passengers

In this enormous machinery, identification of the passengers is the least difficult problem. The federal government will invest $710 million in the US-VISIT (United States Visitor and Immigrating Status Indicator Technology) program which will make it possible to check, thanks to biometrics, the prints of the tourists in possession of a visa. And a system of pre-selection of the passengers by computer, called CAPPS 2 (Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-screening System 2), is being tested in some airports. It gathers all the data available on travelers and allots to them a color code according to their estimated risk. Cost? More than $164 million.

But, in order to give the alarm appropriately, these systems must be fed with reliable information. All software programs used in the information chain must be re-examined. You need to translate the very diverse information, provided by allied governments; handed over gracefully (that’s the case of the airline files), or for payment, indirectly by corporations; or intercepted by the Echelon network. Then, you have to aggregate these data scattered between 22 agencies (Department of Homeland Security, Department of State, Department of Defense…), to cross and analyze the whole. «It’s the concept of data mining, but applied to an unimaginable quantity of information», explains Serge Abiteboul, specialist, at INRIA (French Institute of Research in Data Processing). «Thanks to data mining you can find interesting information without knowing where it is and without knowing what to look for». It reveals behavior schemes which were not expected and can be used in a predictive manner. Some of the best experts in data mining are precisely in the U.S., in particular at IBM…

Patriotism and business

So, in the background, tens of researchers from corporations or university laboratories develop a system for monitoring the world. Close to Los Angeles, the company Language Weaver sharpens more reliable translation software based on statistical algorithms. The Center for Natural Language Processing, located at the University of New York-Syracuse is polishing a program which will identify suspect behaviors. In Atlanta, Nexidia researches audio-video data. In California’s Silicon Valley, Insight improves software for collecting information. Meanwhile, Andrew Moore and Jeff Schneider at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie-Mellon University research data mining; and Virginia’s firm SRA International develops ways to extract data. Etc, etc.

Financing? No problem. Since September 11, 2001, public funds devoted to this kind of research have been considerably increased. And private investors see this as a good way of reconciling patriotism and business. «In 2004, the federal agencies will devote more than $3,5 billion to R&D works related to national security, i.e. anti-terrorism», Serge Hagège, science and technology specialist, at the French Ambassy in the United States, calculates. In the private sector, a speculative mini-bubble has even formed around these activities of monitoring. «All the companies specialized in data mining are favored», says Timothy Quillin, a financial analyst at Stephens Bank and one of the rare experts of the defense and security computer industry. In stock markets, investors bet on companies able to propose complete computer solutions to federal agencies. In 2003, SRA International thus saw its action increasing by 40 percent.

Fears of the associations

This « speculative » fever has also contaminated the venture capitalists. Most of them have created funds devoted to defense and security. Best example? Homeland Security Fund, of Capital Paladin Group, in Washington, which finances protections of data-processing networks and software and audio-video file analysis. Two of the partners of Paladin know the needs of the intelligence agencies: James Woolsey directed the CIA and Kenneth Minihan managed the NSA (National Security Agency).

Motivated researchers, plenty of money… Apart from feasibility problems, it seems there is only one obstacle to the construction of this cyber « ligne Maginot » around the United States: American human rights defense associations. Under their pressure, the government gave up its preliminary draft to put the whole of humanity on file — or almost. «Our objective is to treat all the databases scattered in the world like only one file», hammered in October 2002, Admiral John Poindexter, then in charge, within the Department of Defense, of the IAO. This Information Awareness Office was supposed to spend almost $600 million over four years, to develop the TIA (Total Information Awareness), a gigantic system able to collect information on everybody. But this project caused such concern that the U.S. Congress put a stop to it last September. The federal administration officially did so. The IAO indeed disappeared from the official flowcharts, and the information agencies are forbidden to use any part of the TIA to spy on U.S. citizens in the United States. But for the other inhabitants of the planet, they seem to have carte blanche. And the $600 million of the IAO budget were probably moved somewhere… «The components of the TIA were dispersed between various federal agencies», estimates Steven Aftergood, in charge of Project on Government Secrecy, a division of the Federation of the American Scientists (3,000 members strong, including 50 Nobel Prize winners). As by chance, the Arda, the agency in charge of R&D within the U.S. intelligence community, currently finances a program called NIMD (Novel Intelligence from Massive Data), very similar, to the TIA

Jacques Henno

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