Thursday, February 5, 2009

THE NSA WANTS TO KNOW HOW YOU THINK- MAYBE EVEN WHAT YOU THINK

James Bamford, PBS - The National Security Agency is developing a tool that George Orwell's Thought Police might have found useful: an artificial intelligence system designed to gain insight into what people are thinking.

With the entire Internet and thousands of databases for a brain, the device will be able to respond almost instantaneously to complex questions posed by intelligence analysts. As more and more data is collected-through phone calls, credit card receipts, social networks like Facebook and MySpace, GPS tracks, cell phone geolocation, Internet searches, Amazon book purchases, even E-Z Pass toll records-it may one day be possible to know not just where people are and what they are doing, but what and how they think.

The system is so potentially intrusive that at least one researcher has quit, citing concerns over the dangers in placing such a powerful weapon in the hands of a top-secret agency with little accountability.

Known as Aquaint, which stands for "Advanced QUestion Answering for INTelligence," the project was run for many years by John Prange, an NSA scientist at the Advanced Research and Development Activity. . .

In a 2004 pilot project, a mass of data was gathered from news stories taken from the New York Times, the AP news wire, and the English portion of the Chinese Xinhua news wire covering 1998 to 2000. Then, 13 U.S. military intelligence analysts searched the data and came up with a number of scenarios based on the material. Finally, using those scenarios, an NSA analyst developed 50 topics, and in each of those topics created a series of questions for Aquaint's computerized brain to answer. "Will the Japanese use force to defend the Senkakus?" was one. "What types of disputes or conflict between the PLA [People's Liberation Army] and Hong Kong residents have been reported?" was another. And "Who were the participants in this spy ring, and how are they related to each other?" was a third. Since then, the NSA has attempted to build both on the complexity of the system-more essay-like answers rather than yes or no-and on attacking greater volumes of data.

"The technology behaves like a robot, understanding and answering complex questions," said a former Aquaint researcher. "Think of 2001: A Space Odyssey and the most memorable character, HAL 9000, having a conversation with David. We are essentially building this system. We are building HAL." . . .

A supersmart search engine, capable of answering complex questions such as "What were the major issues in the last 10 presidential elections?" would be very useful for the public. But that same capability in the hands of an agency like the NSA-absolutely secret, often above the law, resistant to oversight, and with access to petabytes of private information about Americans-could be a privacy and civil liberties nightmare. "We must not forget that the ultimate goal is to transfer research results into operational use," said Aquaint project leader John Prange, in charge of information exploitation for IARPA. . .

Collecting information, however, has always been far less of a problem for the NSA than understanding it, and that means knowing the language. To expand its linguistic capabilities, the agency established another new organization, the Center for Advanced Study of Language, and housed it in a building near IARPA at the M Square Research Park. But far from simply learning the meaning of foreign words, CASL, like Aquaint, attempts to find ways to get into someone's mind and understand what he or she is thinking.

One area of study is to attempt to determine if people are lying simply by watching their behavior and listening to them speak. According to one CASL document, "Many deception cues are difficult to identify, particularly when they are subtle, such as changes in verb tense or extremely brief facial expressions. CASL researchers are studying these cues in detail with advanced measurement and statistical analysis techniques in order to recommend ways to identify deceptive cue combinations."

Like something out of a B-grade sci-fi movie, CASL is even training employees to control their own brain waves. . .

Like something out of a B-grade sci-fi movie, CASL is even trying to turn dull minds into creative geniuses by training employees to control their own brain waves: "The cognitive neuroscience team has also been researching divergent thinking: creative, innovative and flexible thinking valuable for language work. They are exploring ways to improve divergent thinking using the EEG and neurobiological feedback. A change in brain-wave activity is believed to be critical for generating creative ideas, so the team trains its subjects to change their brain-wave activity."

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