Magazine article Foreign Policy

The Ministry of Preemption: To Stop Security Breaches before They Happen, U.S. Intelligence Agencies Are Surveilling Everything

Magazine article Foreign Policy

The Ministry of Preemption: To Stop Security Breaches before They Happen, U.S. Intelligence Agencies Are Surveilling Everything

Article excerpt

On April 7, an odd-looking jet landed at Kadena Air Base on Okinawa, Japan. Codenamed Constant Phoenix, it was a U.S. Air Force version of a Boeing 707 but with round pods on the fuselage designed to "sniff" the atmosphere for radioactivity. Eight adays later, across the East China Sea, North Korea would be celebrating the "Day of the Sun," marking the 105th birthday of its founder, Kim II Sung. And because many in the Donald Trump administration were concerned that the festivities would include a very big surprise--the country's sixth nuclear test--Constant Phoenix was on alert. But when the celebrations ended, the surprise was on the Koreans, whose missile launch failed. H The unexpected has always been the enemy of intelligence. That's why a small group of Ph.D.s and research scientists are employed by a secretive organization in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., to take the surprises out of intelligence: the spy world's premier research center, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), which reports directly to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

For decades, from the first World Trade Center bombing to 9/11 to the recent Syrian poison gas attack, U.S. intelligence agencies have consistently been caught off guard, despite hundreds of billions of dollars spent on spies, eavesdroppers, and satellites. IARPA's answer is "anticipatory intelligence," predicting the crime or event before it happens.

Like a scene from Minority Report, the 2002 film where criminals are caught and punished by a "precrime" police force before they can commit their deeds, IARPA hopes to find terrorists, hackers, and even protesters before they act. The group is devising robotic machines that can find virtually everything about everyone and issue automatic "precrime" alerts.

That's the idea behind the agency's Open Source Indicators (OSI) program: Build powerful automated computers, armed with artificial intelligence, specialized algorithms, and machine learning, capable of cataloging the lives of everyone everywhere, 24/7. Tapping real-time into tens of thousands of different data streams--every Facebook post, tweet, and YouTube video; every tollbooth tag number; every GPS download, web search, and news feed; every street camera video; every restaurant reservation on Open Table--largely eliminates surprise from the intelligence equation. To IARPA, the bigger the data, the fewer and smaller the surprises.

If all this sounds familiar, it is. In 2002, the U.S. Defense Department created Total Information Awareness (TIA). Similar to IARPA's OSI, TIA's goal was to create a "virtual, centralized grand database" made up of unclassified, publically available information. But following press reports and a public outcry, Congress killed it. However, the Pentagon secretly shifted some resources to the National Security Agency's own research center, the Advanced Research and Development Activity (ARDA). Then, in 2007, ARDA quietly morphed into IARPA.

Even more troubling is IARPA's secretive program Mercury, which focuses on data mining private communications collected by the NSA. Last year, for example, the agency collected more than 151 million phone call records involving Americans, according to a U.S. intelligence community report released May 2. Worldwide, the number is likely in the billions.

Like OSI, Mercury is outsourced to private contractors who develop computerized robots to scan the ocean of NSA intercepts for clues to potential terrorists, hackers, social unrest, and war. …

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