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Tech by VICE

Bush's Failed Biometric Surveillance Program

Guess who picked up the pieces? The NSA.

by Clinton Nguyen
Jun 17 2015, 11:00am

Image: Wikipedia

Would you trust a government surveillance program with an Illuminati-esque logo with hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars? Well, that already happened long ago.

Before the NSA was given power over dragnet surveillance through programs like PRISM in 2007, it tried to launch a rather ham-handed approach to terrorism surveillance called the Total Information Awareness (TIA) program, according to a slew of documents obtained by a Freedom of Information Act request. It could be considered the direct predecessor to programs the NSA has now.

Short of combing through all your information, the TIA program proposed to cross-reference the following:

  • Bank records
  • Travel documents
  • Cell phone usage
  • Credit card records
  • FBI files
  • Medical records
  • Emails

...and so much more into a big multifaceted system that would be able to "connect the dots" to preempt terrorist attacks.

One of the more frequently mentioned issues the program wanted to tackle was the lurking threat of bioterrorism attacks, likely spurred in part by the 2001 anthrax attacks. A transcribed speech in a document dump obtained through the Freedom of Information Act even used the 1995 Tokyo subway sarin attacks, perpetrated by members of Aum Shinrikyo, a doomsday cult, as an example. If the government had only been able to see the records of hazardous chemicals moving around, if it had only given an ear to civilians complaining about smells of chemical leaks coming from facilities, if it had only paid more attention to the triple murder attempt and radio threats, it could have stopped something from happening.

Thus, why America needed a big program that cobbles together all data, privacy be damned.

Of course, bioterrorism or even natural epidemics aren't threats to be taken lightly. Bill Gates is afraid of a flu strain that could sicken millions. Ebola was hard enough to contain and treat in several countries, and just the existence of a handful of Ebola victims in the US was enough to raise a scare in multiple US cities.

Whether harnessed by terrorists or pure misfortune, it's unclear how ready populations of America would be for an unknown disease—and it's safer to defer to cautious prevention rather than complacency. A couple pages of the document proposed to model computerized epidemics (in this case, a strain of flu in Pittsburgh) to inform policymakers. Obviously, testing epidemic policies on a real population was out of the question, see page 4 on the slides below:

A couple other wacky features the program proposed:

  • A Human Identification at a Distance subdivision (HumanID) that would use biometric sensors to identify people at 150 meters, rain or shine, incognito or not.
  • A Biological Surveillance Program to catch epidemics before they happened—this would have counted people's coughs, monitored for disease-related web searches and conducted surveys that would have measured for spikes in disease activity
  • A speech-to-text program that would automatically translate English, Chinese and Arabic, as well as text auto-translators that would be able to mine foreign language newspapers and media for information

Ultimately the program was suspended in 2003, but according to the New York Times, vestiges of the program are still quietly thriving in programs used by the NSA.

It seems that despite the media outrage the program's vagueness stirred in the early 2000s, its remains are still about, connecting dots as we speak.