Financed by more than $20 million in government contracts, researchers are taking the first steps toward developing a system that could sift through the financial, telephone, travel and medical records of millions of people in hopes of identifying terrorists before they strike.
So far, the companies awarded contracts by the Defense Department are using only fabricated data in their work on the program, which is called Total Information Awareness.
The Pentagon's technology chief, Pete Aldridge, has said the department is interested in tying together such privately held data as credit card records, bank transactions, car rental receipts and gun purchases, along with massive quantities of intelligence information already gathered by the federal government.
The project has met some resistance in Congress because of privacy concerns. Some lawmakers are pushing an amendment to a spending bill that would prohibit the system from ever gathering information on American citizens without a congressional vote approving it.
Meanwhile, contractors and researchers told The Associated Press that they have already been developing pieces of TIA. For example, Doug Lenat, president of Texas-based Cycorp, said his researchers had already built a system to identify phone-calling patterns as they might exist among potential terrorists overseas.
Other TIA contractors include defense giant Raytheon and Telcordia, a telecommunications company specializing in research and development. Several other companies have been waiting to finalize deals.
So far, contractors have worked with fake data, things like made-up telephone numbers and receipts that look like real consumer records, but aren't, according to interviews and public records.
Aldridge outlined the program in a news conference in November after questions arose about the choice of John Poindexter to head TIA.
The former admiral and national security adviser to President Reagan has been a lightning rod. A figure in the Iran-Contra scandal, he was convicted on charges of lying to Congress, destroying official documents and obstructing a congressional investigation. The verdicts were overturned on appeal.
From the start, the idea of TIA has proven controversial, pitting national security worries against fears the government would run roughshod over individual privacy.
"We're talking about the most expansive, far reaching surveillance program ever proposed. The Congress has got to take a stand here," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who has led efforts to restrict TIA.
Pentagon officials declined repeated interview requests by AP for this story.
After coming under earlier Senate criticism, the Defense Department named a TIA oversight panel and issued a news release denying it is building a gigantic database.
However, a document that was part of the department's bid solicitation for the TIA said "the term 'database' is intended to convey a new kind of extremely large, omni-media, virtually-centralized and semantically rich information repository."
Peter Higgins, a consultant and former CIA chief information officer, said what officials wanted from TIA was a system that would use relevant private and government-compiled information to spot patterns or convergences.
For example, a government-collected list of every person treated for anthrax exposure could help find people plotting a biological attack. Even more useful: finding people on that list who also telephone Afghanistan.
Electronic records are already ubiquitous in corporate America. Businesses keep lists of cardiac patients, BMW owners, subscribers to porn magazines, even people who tend to do their grocery shopping about the time they receive sales circulars, Higgins said.
Privacy laws governing the disclosure of personal electronic data vary widely, depending on the type of data.
The Fair Credit Reporting Act, for example, forbids credit bureaus from combining the data they collect about a customer's on-time payment history with data the bureaus sell to direct marketers. The Federal Election Commission allows the Republican and Democratic parties to sell lists of people who contribute.
The Pentagon began advertising for bids to work on TIA last March, inviting ideas to exploit "novel" information sources and new electronic research methods.
Overseeing the research is the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, or DARPA, the same office that developed the Internet. According to the published solicitation, DARPA planned a five-year timeline for TIA: three to develop ideas and demonstrations, two to build and expand on the most promising ones.
The TIA budget is $30 million from the current and past fiscal years.
In all, 26 bids were received, said DARPA spokeswoman Jan Walker. Four companies were awarded contracts. According to the TIA Web site, many other organizations were already working on pieces Poindexter planned to connect to TIA.
The companies included:
-- Cycorp, based in Austin, Texas, which was awarded $9.8 million to work on a prototype database. The company specializes in searching data.
-- Telcordia, based in Morristown, N.J., which won a $5.2 million contract to focus on connecting data already available within different government offices.
-- Hicks Associates, of McLean, Va., which was awarded $3.6 million to study the feasibility of TIA, how it would develop, and to create a prototype.
-- Booz, Allen & Hamilton, based in Falls Church, Va., which won a $1.5 million contract. Its purpose was not publicly disclosed.
Raytheon Co., based in Lexington, Mass., which confirmed that it is under contract with DARPA. Spokesman David Shay declined to outline Raytheon's specific role.
Another research firm, RAND Corp., based in Santa Monica, Calif., confirmed it was expecting to work on TIA. Neither the company nor the Pentagon would provide details.
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