arsTechnica has an interesting overview of government spying on U.S. Citizens. Revenge of the Return of the Son of TIA, Part LXVII It refers to a Christian Science Monitor article I discussed here: U.S. Spies plan massive data sweep of Internet as well as other information.
The overall context for this story is the Total Information Awareness system which had been under development by the DoD, been exposed to the public, which caused a stink, resulting in the supposed cancelation of the project.
What actually happened is one sub-project was canceled, and the remnants has continued on. As the arsTechnica article says:
When Total Information Awareness (TIA) was shot down by Congress amid a storm of public controversy, it seem pretty clear that the government would keep trying, and trying, and trying until it got something that was very much like TIA. The promise of the Big Database in the Sky, the database that knows everything about everyone and can tell who's been naughty and who's been nice, is just too tempting for The Powers That Be to pass up. As it turns out, there's more than one program going on at the moment that's designed to implement such a database,
They discuss two (known) projects that are obviously implementing the same goal. The first, Analysis, Dissemination, Visualization, Insight, and Semantic Enhancement (ADVISE), is discussed by the Christian Science Monitor article. The other is Topsail, which is the actual successor to the TIA project (minus the futures market).
Topsail is discussed in this Newsweek article: Wanted: Competent Big Brothers As the Senate frets over whether the NSA has violated the outdated Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, no one is paying attention to the real issue: proficiency. by Michael Hirsh
There's an interesting question here between the different views in these articles.
On the one hand we, Americans anyway, are very opposed to massive government surveillance. I say this because of the nearly universal abhorent reaction to 1984 (the book). Just say Big Brother and watch the heebie jeebies crawl up peoples spine.
On the other hand Michael Hirsh makes some interesting points. His article is very positive to these developments. His article claims the NSA is stuck in old technology, and old ways of conducting its business of watching communications. His article repeats the claim that the spy agencies had enough facts about the terrorist attack, but didn't have the technology required to connect the dots.
As Hirsh says "data mining", when used well, can connect facts together to let one see the bigger picture. Given that there are, clearly, some people out there who want to cause damage to society, it makes some sense to use advanced technology to try and find their tracks.
A part of this story is that the capabilities of technology are advancing. As we make more powerful computers, the spooks can do more stuff.
The spooks clearly want to create a system that can track a large portion of the transactions that happen every day. By connecting together disparate transactions, they might detect an attack before it happens.
For example ... take the Oklohoma City bombing. The story is the bomb was made from fertilizer and kerosene, and they used a rental truck as a "car bomb". This means the conspirators will have bought certain supplies before making their attack. Since the area has a lot of farming, a large fertilizer sale wouldn't be too strange by itself, but when connected by data mining to other purchases that together could create a bomb. Well, that's tantalizing the spooks, I'm sure.
But, I think, what about when they make mistakes? As the arsTechnica article alludes, they don't know what patterns to look for.
In the Newsweek article, Hirsh relies on perfect hindsight. It's easy to say the attackers used some specific weapon, and if only we'd known what to look for ahead of time we could have stopped the attack. But, in truth how can one know what to look for ahead of time? That is, until someone makes a weapon how do you know what form their attack will take?