Without leaving their desks, government intelligence analysts could soon be viewing information from a massive supercomputer that sifts through government databases, private databases and Internet mail to search for patterns indicative of illegal activity.

And they won’t need a search warrant to do so.

Known as Total Information Awareness, the computer is being built by the Information Awareness Office of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. It will use pattern recognition techniques known as data mining.

“What we are doing is developing technologies and a prototype system to revolutionize the ability of the United States to detect, classify and identify foreign terrorists, and decipher their plans, and thereby enable the US to take timely action to successfully pre-empt and defeat terrorist acts,” said Jan Walker, a defense spokesperson.

Security over privacy

Historically, military and intelligence agencies have not been permitted to spy on Americans without authorization. In addition, the Privacy Act of 1974 limits what government agencies can do with private information.

But following the terrorist attacks of September 11, privacy concerns have been less important than security concerns. This has led to new legislation that eliminates privacy protections, some of which has been proposed by the Bush administration in the Homeland Security Act that is now before Congress.

All of this worries civil liberties proponents. “This could be the perfect storm for civil liberties in America,” Marc Rotenberg, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, told The New York Times. “The vehicle is the Homeland Security Act, the technology is DARPA and the agency is the FBI. The outcome is a system of national surveillance of the American public.”

Civil libertarians argue that the new system will lead to a surveillance state, and that potential terrorists will soon learn how to avoid detection anyway.

And there is no way of knowing when the snooping has begun: Military officials will not say when TIA will become operational.

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