Modeled after a Defense Department concept that ostensibly could keep tabs on every American, a pair of Massachusetts Institute of Technology students have created a website in which users can “track” politicians and government officials.
The project, called Government Information Awareness, or GIA, was developed by Chris Csikszentmihalyi, assistant professor at the MIT Media Lab, and graduate student Ryan McKinley.
The goal was to design a site that would act as “sort of a citizen’s intelligence agency,” Csikszentmihalyi told the Boston Globe.
The GIA model was inspired by a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency creation known as Total Information Awareness, or TIA, which later was renamed the Terrorism Information Awareness system after it was learned TIA could be used to monitor the activities of millions of Americans in the government’s search for possible terrorists.
TIA is capable of analyzing financial, medical, consumer, educational and travel data, among other pieces of information, to formulate a pattern of behavior that would match pre-determined terrorist profiles.
“The goal of the Terrorism Information Awareness program is to revolutionize the ability of the United States to detect, classify and identify foreign terrorists – and decipher their plans – and thereby enable the U.S. to take timely action to successfully preempt and defeat terrorist acts,” says a DARPA description of the program.
Congress limited the scope of the program after complaints from a number of civil liberties organizations.
Many of those concerns were addressed in a letter to the U.S. Senate by the Association for Computing Machinery, which stated that “because of serious security, privacy, economic, and personal risks associated with the development of a vast database surveillance system, we recommend a rigorous, independent review of these aspects of TIA.”
“There are important steps that the government can take now to increase our security without creating a massive surveillance program that has the potential of doing more harm than good,” said the letter. “Federal, state and local governments already have information systems in place that could play major roles with highly focused ‘terrorist spotting.'”
Nevertheless, the architects of GIA say their goal is similar, only in reverse; they want average citizens to be able to keep track of information relating to government employees and politicians.
GIA’s mission is “to empower citizens by providing a single, comprehensive, easy-to-use repository of information on individuals, organizations, and corporations related to the government of the United States of America,” according to a description posted on the GIA website.
Also, GIA’s mission is “to allow citizens to submit intelligence about government-related issues, while maintaining their anonymity” and “to allow members of the government a chance to participate in the process.”
“In the United States, there is a widening gap between a citizen’s ability to monitor his or her government and the government’s ability to monitor a citizen,” says the website. “Average citizens have limited access to important government records, while available information is often illegible. Meanwhile, the government’s eagerness and means to oversee a citizen’s personal activity is rapidly increasing.”
McKinley told the Boston Globe “total information” should be a two-way street between government and civilians.
“If total information exists, really the same effort should be spent to make the same information at the leadership level at least as transparent – in my opinion, more transparent,” he said.
Part of the technology involved in the site is similar to data mining software used by such search engines as Google. That includes, said the Globe, “independent political sites like opensecrets.org, as well as sites run by government agencies.”
Also, Csikszentmihalyi and McKinley took advantage of round-the-clock political coverage by cable channels such as C-SPAN. The MIT students use video cameras to capture images of people on screen, which are generally accompanied by their names.
The Globe says a computer program then “reads” each name and matches it to existing information about that person already stored on site.