Why NSA's Total Information Awareness will go the way of the Manned Bomber and Space Plane Programs
Last edited Wed Mar 21, 2012, 11:18 AM - Edit history (10)Big Pentagon budgets are hard to kill. Years after it's obvious to nearly everyone that the the original program is obsolete, it doesn't work, or its original strategic justification no longer applies, the toys of war never seem to really go away.
This is what's happening today with the NSA's Groundbreaker program, which was originally disclosed in its earlier incarnation as Admiral John Poindexter's Total Information Awareness (TIA) program. When there's a program that can't be justified, but the Pentagon really wants to keep, it goes black-budget, and is turned into a subject that no serious person wants to publicly discuss. It gets mystified.
Operation Groundbreaker emerged in the wake of 9/11 as NSA's answer to the question: "What does a terrorist eat? What is his credit score? And, if you intercept every single email and telephone call made in America, will any of them lead you to Osama Bin Laden's hideout?" They spent billions trying to answer those questions, and merely confirmed what they already knew. Humus and yogurt are good food, and most everyone's emails and bank records contain mountains of useless data that tie up the attention of armies of trained intelligence analysts. And, as it turned out, Osama wasn't really living in Detroit.
When a program is really in danger of receiving the budget ax, then a strange thing has been known to happen. They get turned into UFOs.
The Air Force's 50 year-old Hypersonic Space Planes and UFOs Over China in 2010
The hypersonic space plane concept is very 1950s tech, and had it not been for the sheer "bang for the buck" of guided missiles as opposed to a continuation of manned bomber programs, we would have seen some variation on the B-58 "Superhustler" space plane parasite bomber concept, illustrated below:
Old declassified black and white photos and nicely rendered art show that by the late 1950s, America could build Mach 6 or 7 space planes if enough money were thrown into the engineering problems involved. Some full-size mockups were built for the Air Force by Consolidated, which folded after Lockheed got the contract for what became the SR-71 Blackbird. Just how far the hypersonic space plane program progressed under other management is still a secret.
By the 1970s, even the Russians were going to punk down a mountain of rubles to develop their own fleet of hypersonic Buran space shuttle/fighter/interceptor/surveillance planes:
But, then, the Evil Empire crashed, as is ours, now. Kerchunk. So, see, no real technology payoff there. Just misspent funds and sleek, expensive but obsolete toys gathering dust parked in aircraft scrapyards in Arizona and Siberia.
But, the really cool ones that never got built -- because there were cheaper, better options -- never really went away. The space planes just got thrown into the black budget closet. Every now and then, one or two of them gets pulled out and buzzed around over China or Norway to justify the billions that are still being spent on their development.
So we, who still, half a century after these things were publicly declared obsolete or too expensive, we are still paying for them. But, don't ask too many questions - they're labeled "UFOs." As we all know, serious people aren't interested in that.
The fact is, the unexplained aerial events millions of people have been seeing in recent years are all readily explainable by known technology. For example, the spectacular laminar separation "bursts" observed in the contrail flow of the vehicle seen in the video over China are the same as illustrated in NASA-released documents of airflow at Mach 7 over the X-37 fuselage, below. This technology is so old that it's declassified as historical material. The enormous vapor contrails seen in the video may well be the result of the injection of cooling liquid into the extremely hot boundary layer surrounding the skin of the aircraft, a technique described in the NACA hypersonic space plane studies of 1957. See, http://history.nasa.gov/SP-4302/ch2.12.htm
In the 1950s, the X-15 already traveled at this speed, the only real difference is that this is a lifting body with an airbreathing engine that extends the burn period and range of its powered flight path. Turn it into a mystery, recycle 'fifties tech, and continue to spend billions of dollars half a century later.
Same principle of known science also applies to the NSA's computational technologies. Like manned bombers, there's no revolution on the horizon for an IT solution to fighting terrorism - after having billions of dollars thrown at it for a decade, the "revolution" in computer profiling of threats is over. It's a technological dead-end. While huge black budgets continue to fund domestic spying programs, the usable technology payoff isn't very great, but the profits for federal contractors which build these things never seem to go away.
Watch the skies.
I work a lot with Semantic systems - technologies that can make inferences based upon mountains of assertions, and that have featured extensively in TIA-type applications. Some of the technology is quite cool - there's been a fairly major advance in AI systems because of this, and such systems are also very useful for everything from Siri on the iPhone to advanced inferential search systems for Google and Microsoft.
However, what also emerged out of this was that the principle of Garbage In Garbage Out holds even more true for Semantics than it does elsewhere. For such a system to work, you need to make a lot of assertions about a lot of things, and to a certain extent you need to build those assertions as models with a number of underlying assumptions. The more accurate (and more timely) those assumptions, the higher the degree of probability that your inferences are correct, but getting accurate and timely assumptions in the first place is the problem. In other words, you can do TIA type analysis to determine the possible next moves of someone that you believe to be a terrorist in the first place, but if your initial assumptions are incorrect (a terrorist will be part of Al Quaida, therefore they will be Islamic and come from an Islamic country) then no amount of analysis is going to help. What's more, what TIA is looking for in general is a pattern, but anyone who's committed enough to be a terrorist will go out of their way not to establish a pattern in the first place. Being able to read "non-patterns" is an incredibly difficult task, because your false positives will be far, far higher than your hit rate.
I take away from this that the long term investment has certainly improved the overall semantic field, but that was largely an accidental byproduct of attempting to solve a problem which never really needed a resolution, especially because the use of it successfully would also have raised some major ethical issues.
Also, the 5th Amendment ain't coming back either. Waterboarding isn't some pie in the sky technology and it doesn't cost the govt shit. Goon squad "talent" just gets cheaper as the economy worsens.