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Citizenfour and DARPA

Written by Subject: Surveillance

I just had a chance to see the documentary about NSA whistle blower Edward Snowden. Citizenfour is an amazing look behind the scenes at the revelation that the National Security Agency has a number of programs for collecting and analyzing information on the emails, phone calls, and other electronic communications of millions of Americans as well as people beyond our borders.

It's thanks to Snowden that we know that the NSA has intercepted data from Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Verizon, and other conduits for our communications. The reams of documents snatched by Snowden on his way out the door at the NSA also revealed, embarrassingly to the President of the United States, that German Chancellor Angela Merkel's own mobile phone was tapped.

Fimmaker Laura Poitras was one of two journalists Snowden entrusted with the documents and his identity, and the film brings us to the Hong Kong hotel room where Snowden delivered the goods in June, 2013.

While watching the movie, I remembered a DARPA program that I had written about in my book, The Department of Mad Scientists, called Total Information Awareness (TIA).

That program, launched by then director Tony Tether in the wake of 9/11, got shot down by Congress in 2004 and almost cost Tether his job. The idea behind it, Tether told me, was to automatically collect the dots between bits of information already being gathered by various law enforcement agencies to flag human analysts about potentially suspicious behavior by possible terrorists.

From my book:

The idea that DARPA wanted to look into every U.S. citizen's private records was nonsense, [Tether] told me. What he and [program office director] Poindexter wanted to do, he said, was to develop sophisticated methods for sifting through the terabytes of data already being amassed by the various law enforcement, military, and intelligence organizations to spot suspicious patterns that might correlate to terrorist activity—before that activity turned deadly. "We never really meant that we are going to sift through the cyberspace of the United States. We were really always looking at the normal amount of information that the intelligence agencies collected as a matter of fact. But, boy, you know, I never could really convince people of that."

The amount of data being amassed by the NSA at the time probably wasn't as great as it is now. Even so, TIA, which was conceived as a way to automate the analysis of data already being collected, seems like a red herring now.

It's not the analysis of the data that should have people worried so much as its collection in the first place. And it seems that the objectives of TIA are now being met, with or without DARPA's help.

In Citizenfour, Snowden describes software tools that help human analysts grind through the massive amount of information available to them. Of course they have such tools. How could the data being collected be of any use without them?

Go see Citizenfour, and know beyond a doubt that you are being watched. What's to be done about it is anyone's guess, but the film makes clear that principled individuals thinking for themselves can make a difference, even within the machineries of massive organizations.

The U.S. government calls what Snowden did espionage. Snowden calls it informing a citizenry so that a democracy can function properly. What do you think?

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