Big Brother Gets a Brain

The Pentagon's Plan for Tracking Everything That Moves

The cameras are already in place. The computer code is being developed at a dozen or more major companies and universities. And the trial runs have already been planned.

Everything is set for a new Pentagon program to become perhaps the federal government's widest reaching, most invasive mechanism yet for keeping us all under watch. Not in the far-off, dystopian future. But here, and soon.

The military is scheduled to issue contracts for Combat Zones That See, or CTS, as early as September. The first demonstration should take place before next summer, according to a spokesperson. Approach a checkpoint at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, during the test and CTS will spot you. Turn the wheel on this sprawling, 8,656-acre army encampment, and CTS will record your action. Your face and license plate will likely be matched to those on terrorist watch lists. Make a move considered suspicious, and CTS will instantly report you to the authorities.

Illustration by Richard Borge
Illustration by Richard Borge

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Fort Belvoir is only the beginning for CTS. Its architects at the Pentagon say it will help protect our troops in cities like Baghdad, where for the past few weeks fleeting attackers have been picking off American fighters in ones and twos. But defense experts believe the surveillance effort has a second, more sinister, purpose: to keep entire cities under an omnipresent, unblinking eye.

This isn't some science fiction nightmare. Far from it. CTS depends on parts you could get, in a pinch, at Kmart.

"There's almost a 100 percent chance that it will work," said Jim Lewis, who heads the Technology and Public Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, "because it's just connecting things that already exist."

As currently configured, the old-line cameras speckled throughout every major city aren't that much of a privacy concern. Yes, there are lenses everywhere—several thousand just in Manhattan. But they see so much, it's almost impossible for snoops to sift through all the footage and find what's important.

CTS would coordinate the cameras, gathering their views in a single information storehouse. The goal, according to a recent Pentagon presentation to defense contractors, is to "track everything that moves."

"This gives the U.S. government capabilities Big Brother only pretended to have," said John Pike, director of Globalsecurity.org, a defense think tank. "Before, we said Big Brother's watching. But he really wasn't, because there was too much to watch."

CTS could help soldiers spot dangers as they navigate perilous urban areas, Pentagon researchers insist. That's not how defense analysts like Pike see it. The program "seems to have more to do with domestic surveillance than a foreign battlefield," he said, "and more to do with the Department of Homeland Security than the Department of Defense."

"Right now, this may be a military program," added Lewis. "But when it gets up and running, there's going to be a huge temptation to apply it to policing at home"—to keep tabs on ordinary citizens, whether or not they've done something wrong.


Traditionally, the authorities have collected information only on people who might be connected to a crime. If there was a murder in the East Village, the cops didn't bring in all of St. Mark's Place; they interrogated only the people who might have information about the killer. Even the most extreme abuses of law enforcement power—like J. Edgar Hoover's domestic spying on political activists—homed in on very specific individuals, or groups, that he imagined as threats to the state. He didn't put the whole state under watch.

September 11 changed that. Now, the idea is to find out as much as possible about as many people as possible. After all, the logic goes, the country can't afford to sit back and wait to be attacked. Almost anyone could play a part in a terrorist plot. So the government has to keep tabs on almost everyone.

CTS, a $12 million, three-year program, is emerging as a potential centerpiece of that initiative.

"Before, it was 'let's catch the bad guys and bring them to trial after stuff happens,' " Lewis said. "Now it's 'let's look for patterns and stop [an attack] before it happens.' "

That's why Attorney General John Ashcroft pushed for a program to turn a million civilians into citizen-spies, snooping on their neighbors. That's why the USA Patriot Act now allows for wiretaps without warrants. And it's why the Pentagon has begun researching an array of high-tech tools to pry into average people's lives.

CTS is the brainchild of DARPA, the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. That's the group of minds behind the notoriously invasive Total (sorry, "Terrorism") Information Awareness über-database. TIA's backers say the project will be carefully targeted, but privacy advocates say it could compile in a single place an unprecedented amount of information about you—your school transcripts, medical records, credit card bills, e-mail, and so much more.

"LifeLog," currently in the early planning stage at DARPA, would twist all these bits into narrative "threads," giving officials a chance to watch events develop. Along the way, LifeLog's developers would like to capture the name of every TV show you watch, every magazine you read.

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