It’s been seven months since the Pentagon pulled the plug on LifeLog, its controversial project to archive almost everything about a person. But now, the Defense Department seems ready to revive large portions of the program under a new name.
Using a series of sensors embedded in a GI’s gear, the Advanced Soldier Sensor Information System and Technology, or ASSIST, project aims to collect what a soldier sees, says and does in a combat zone — and then to weave those events into digital memories, so commanders can have a better sense of how the fight unfolded.
That’s similar to what planners at Darpa, the Pentagon’s research arm, had in mind for LifeLog, its ambitious electronic diary effort. However, ASSIST’s aspirations are more modest, its battlefield focus is clearer, and its privacy concerns are more manageable, military analysts and computer scientists say. All of that combines to give the project a better chance of taking off where LifeLog crashed.
“Welcome to the wacky ways of contracting at the Defense Department. If it doesn’t fly the first time around, you can be sure it’ll be back. And so it is,” said Steven Aftergood, an analyst with the Federation of American Scientists. “This time around, though, the work has a slightly more plausible context. And more of an effort has been made to connect it to a military application.”
Under the old Darpa program, every aspect of a life was fair game — not just what was heard or said, but what e-mails were sent, what meals were bought and what TV shows were watched. Privacy advocates wondered how all that information was going to be used.
Darpa, in return, had a slew of answers. In a program overview, the agency suggested that the program could offer a way to create a computerized assistant for battlefield commanders. Darpa said the project could also provide a means to “support medical research and the early detection of an emerging epidemic.”
That fuzziness set off alarm bells for civil liberties advocates, particularly because LifeLog came on the heels of Total Information Awareness, Darpa’s unnervingly far-reaching effort to use ordinary citizens’ records to profile potential terrorists. At first, the only people wearing the electronic diaries would have been those scientists developing LifeLog. Nevertheless, critics like The New York Times’ William Safire were still concerned. LifeLog researchers might be comfortable recording their own actions. But what about the other people that the LifeLoggers are “looking at, listening to, sniffing or conspiring with to blow up the world?” Safire wondered.