The panopticon shall prevail. Retired US Navy Admiral John Poindexter came to the public’s attention during the Iran-Contra scandal where he was convicted of lying to Congress about the operation, though the conviction was overturned on appeal. Upon leaving the military Poindexter worked as a defense contractor but was ultimately brought back into government by President George Bush in 2001 where, in the shadow of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Poindexter took the surveillance society to its ultimate end with the concept and policy framework of Total Information Awareness (TIA).
Once TIA became public it too created controversy for Poindexter though he ultimately retired from the Bush Administration in 2003 due to controversy surrounding the creation of a gambling project called Policy Analysis Market which allowed people to profit by betting on terrorist attacks and assassinations.
Though Poindexter’s service in the Bush Administration was relatively brief, it did leave an impression on one person, Peter Ho, the permanent Secretary of Defense for Singapore.
The two men met in Poindexter’s small office in Virginia, and on a whiteboard, Poindexter sketched out for Ho the core concepts of his imagined system, which Poindexter called Total Information Awareness (TIA). It would gather up all manner of electronic records — emails, phone logs, Internet searches, airline reservations, hotel bookings, credit card transactions, medical reports — and then, based on predetermined scenarios of possible terrorist plots, look for the digital “signatures” or footprints that would-be attackers might have left in the data space. The idea was to spot the bad guys in the planning stages and to alert law enforcement and intelligence officials to intervene.
Ho said he was impressed with Poindexter’s “sheer audacity” and went back to Singapore with a commitment to implement a version of TIA there. But it was not just Sinapore where Poindexter’s seemingly disgraced ideas would live on.
In late 2003, a group of U.S. lawmakers more sympathetic to Poindexter’s ideas arranged for his experiment to be broken into several discrete programs, all of which were given new, classified code names and placed under the supervision of the National Security Agency (NSA). Unbeknownst to almost all Americans at the time, the NSA was running a highly classified program of its own that actually was collecting Americans’ phone and Internet communications records and mining them for connections to terrorists. Elements of that program were described in classified documents disclosed in 2013 by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, sparking the most significant and contentious debate about security and privacy in America in more than four decades.
That’s right folks, TIA was never really shut down. Publicly condemned as an Orwellian unconstitutional invasion of people’s privacy? Yes. But actually stopped? Not really.
Singapore’s TIA, called the Risk Assessment and Horizon Scanning program (RAHS), is in full gear and attracting a lot of interest from Pentagon officials. The Singapore government even hired a former American military officer to be a consultant on the program.
The name of the consultant? You guessed it, John Poindexter.