• United States



by CSO Contributor

What Is Chatter?; Justice Dept. Lists Use of New Power to Fight Terror; Pentagon Details New Surveillance System; Spy Machine of DARPAs Dreams

May 21, 20035 mins
CSO and CISOData and Information Security

What Is Chatter?

The Department of Homeland Security has raised the terror alert to Orange, or high, reportedly after intercepting communications and receiving intelligence warnings that suggested that al Qaeda is planning more attacks on targets overseas, according to todays Washington Post. Referring to the danger of an attack here, a senior government official told the Post: “There are a lot of bad signals out there.” Those signals are conversationally referred to as chatter. But what is it really? According to a BBC News story today, chatter is the innocuous-sounding term for intercepted phone calls, e-mails and faxes between those suspected of plotting terror attacks. Not that the agencies involvedamong them British intelligence agencies MI5 and the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) at Cheltenham, and the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA)will discuss chatter and how it is monitored. But Neil Robinson of the Information Assurance Advisory Council in Cambridge, England, says much of the “chatter” reported probably refers to a surge in the volume of traffic that scrutinizers notice between suspects, rather than what is being discussed. “They may track how long a call is made for; where a call is made from and to; the number of calls made or e-mails sent.” Others may track postings on newsgroups known to be used by those of interest to the authorities, be they May Day protesters or a group altogether more sinister. Justice Dept. Lists Use of New Power to Fight TerrorThe New York Times today, the Justice Department released A 60-page report to members of Congress yesterday showing that federal agents had conducted hundreds of bugging and surveillance operations and visited numerous libraries and mosques using new law enforcement tools. Among other things, Justice Department officials said they were now reviewing some 4,500 intelligence files in terrorist cases to determine whether criminal charges should be brought. Such a mingling of intelligence and criminal investigations was largely banned under internal Justice Department procedures in place before Sept. 11, 2001, says the Times. The report, intended to answer concerns from lawmakers who say the department has kept them in the dark about its counterterrorism operations and has not done enough to safeguard civil liberties in its pursuit of terrorists, provided dozens of pieces of previously undisclosed data on a variety of activities including the use of hundreds of secret search warrants and the fact that some 50 people had been detained without charges as material witnesses.

According to a story in

Pentagon Details New Surveillance SystemCNET Specific safeguards have not been established, but possibilities mentioned by the report included audit trails to keep track of who is using the system, access controls to limit what data they see and filters to hide individuals’ names unless investigators had a court warrant to reveal them. Even while trying to allay fears of privacy loss (the Pentagon renamed the program Terrorist Information Awareness), the report detailed the development of a massive computer surveillance system that would have the power to track people as never before, according to The Washington Post today. Once realized, it would identify people at great distances by the irises of their eyes, the grooves in their face or even their gait. It would look for suspicious patterns in video footage of people’s movements. And it would analyze airline ticket purchases, visa applications, as well as financial, medical, educational and biometric records to try to predict terrorists’ acts or catch them in the planning stage. The Pentagon has budgeted $9.2 million for the program in 2003, $20 million in 2004 and $24.5 million in 2005.

Responding to concerns that its Total Information Awareness program would allow unfettered surveillance, the Pentagon said in a report to Congress yesterday that the program would have built-in mechanisms to ensure that it did not intrude on Americans’ privacy, according to a Reuters story on

Spy Machine of DARPAs DreamsWired News story yesterday, the Pentagon is about to embark on a stunningly ambitious research project designed to gather every conceivable bit of information about a person’s life, index all the information and make it searchable. The embryonic LifeLog program would dump everything an individual does into a giant database: every e-mail sent or received, every picture taken, every Web page surfed, every phone call made, every TV show watched, every magazine read. On the surface, the project seems like just the latest of the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency’s “blue sky” research efforts, most of which never make it out of the lab. But Wired reports, DARPA is currently asking businesses and universities for research proposals to begin moving LifeLog forward. Privacy advocates think LifeLog could go far beyond the scope of DARPAs Total Information Awareness program, adding physical information (like how we feel) and media data (like what we read) to the transactional data that system would collect. DARPA defends the program as a way to create efficient robotic assistants or enhance medical research.

According to a