Is “Total Information Awareness” back?

Looks like it’s time for me to join the conspiracy theorists (CNET):

The whopping housing bill that President Bush signed into law last week does far more than merely address the nation’s real estate woes. Some sections have raised serious privacy concerns.

Tucked in near the end of the Housing and Economic Recovery Act is a requirement that banks and online payment networks annually collect and report to the IRS electronic payments made to online merchants. It takes effect in 2011, and will affect what information companies like PayPal collect from their sellers and could raise privacy and auditing complications.

The housing bill also finalized the SAFE Mortgage Licensing Act. As CNET previously reported, the provision creates a national fingerprint registry of “loan originators”–essentially anyone involved in the mortgage industry. While intended to curb predatory lending, the measure has come under fire for being potentially ineffective and unnecessarily invasive.

For the uninitiated, the term “total information awareness” comes from the mission statement of the supposedly-defunct DAPRA organization — the Information Awareness Office — which reads: “imagine, develop, apply, integrate, demonstrate and transition information technologies, components and prototype, closed-loop, information systems that will counter asymmetric threats by achieving total information awareness” (The New Yorker).

Note the use of the term “supposedly-defunct”, here’s what the American Civil Liberties Organization (ACLU) said in March 2008:

The American Civil Liberties Union responded today to a stunning new report that the NSA has effectively revived the Orwellian “Total Information Awareness” domestic-spying program that was banned by Congress in 2003. In response, the ACLU said that it was filing a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for more information about the spying. And, the group announced that it was moving its “Surveillance Clock” one minute closer to midnight.

“Congress shut down TIA because it represented a massive and unjustified governmental intrusion into the personal lives of Americans,” said Caroline Fredrickson, Director of the Washington Legislative Office of the ACLU. “Now we find out that the security agencies are pushing ahead with the program anyway, despite that clear congressional prohibition. The program described by current and former intelligence officials in Monday’s Wall Street Journal could be modeled on Orwell’s Big Brother.”

The ACLU said the new report confirmed its past warnings that the NSA was engaging in extremely broad-based data mining that was violating the privacy of vast numbers of Americans.

The Total Information Awareness (TIA) program was a mammoth data mining program that envisioned programming computers to trawl through an extensive list of databases containing personal information about Americans – including communications, medical, travel, education and financial data – in an attempt to detect supposedly “suspicious” patterns. Congress shut down the program amid bipartisan objections that it was the most far-reaching domestic surveillance proposal that had ever been offered.

H/t: Virginia Coalition of Open Government listserv

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