|A Spy Machine of DARPA's Dreams
| May 20, 2003
It's a memory aid! A robotic assistant! An epidemic detector! An all-seeing, ultra-intrusive spying program!
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.
What national security experts and civil libertarians want to know is, why would the Defense Department want to do such a thing?
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.
All of this -- and more -- would combine with information gleaned from a variety of sources: a GPS transmitter to keep tabs on where that person went, audio-visual sensors to capture what he or she sees or says, and biomedical monitors to keep track of the individual's health.
This gigantic amalgamation of personal information could then be used to "trace the 'threads' of an individual's life," to see exactly how a relationship or events developed, according to a briefing from the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency, LifeLog's sponsor.
Someone with access to the database could "retrieve a specific thread of past transactions, or recall an experience from a few seconds ago or from many years earlier ... by using a search-engine interface."
On the surface, the project seems like the latest in a long line of DARPA's "blue sky" research efforts, most of which never make it out of the lab. But DARPA is currently asking businesses and universities for research proposals to begin moving LifeLog forward. And some people, such as Steven Aftergood, a defense analyst with the Federation of American Scientists, are worried.
With its controversial Total Information Awareness database project, DARPA already is planning to track all of an individual's "transactional data" -- like what we buy and who gets our e-mail.
While the parameters of the project have not yet been determined, Aftergood said he believes LifeLog could go far beyond TIA's scope, adding physical information (like how we feel) and media data (like what we read) to this transactional data.
"LifeLog has the potential to become something like 'TIA cubed,'" he said.
In the private sector, a number of LifeLog-like efforts already are underway to digitally archive one's life -- to create a "surrogate memory," as minicomputer pioneer Gordon Bell calls it.
Bell, now with Microsoft, scans all his letters and memos, records his conversations, saves all the Web pages he's visited and e-mails he's received and puts them into an electronic storehouse dubbed MyLifeBits.
DARPA's LifeLog would take this concept several steps further by tracking where people go and what they see.
That makes the project similar to the work of University of Toronto professor Steve Mann. Since his teen years in the 1970s, Mann, a self-styled "cyborg," has worn a camera and an array of sensors to record his existence. He claims he's convinced 20 to 30 of his current and former students to do the same. It's all part of an experiment into "existential technology" and "the metaphysics of free will."
DARPA isn't quite so philosophical about LifeLog. But the agency does see some potential battlefield uses for the program.
"The technology could allow the military to develop computerized assistants for war fighters and commanders that can be more effective because they can easily access the user's past experiences," DARPA spokeswoman Jan Walker speculated in an e-mail.
It also could allow the military to develop more efficient computerized training systems, she said: Computers could remember how each student learns and interacts with the training system, then tailor the lessons accordingly.
John Pike, director of defense think tank GlobalSecurity.org, said he finds the explanations "hard to believe."
"It looks like an outgrowth of Total Information Awareness and other DARPA homeland security surveillance programs," he added in an e-mail.
Sure, LifeLog could be used to train robotic assistants. But it also could become a way to profile suspected terrorists, said Cory Doctorow, with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. In other words, Osama bin Laden's agent takes a walk around the block at 10 each morning, buys a bagel and a newspaper at the corner store and then calls his mother. You do the same things -- so maybe you're an al Qaeda member, too!
"The more that an individual's characteristic behavior patterns -- 'routines, relationships and habits' -- can be represented in digital form, the easier it would become to distinguish among different individuals, or to monitor one," Aftergood, the Federation of American Scientists analyst, wrote in an e-mail.
In its LifeLog report, DARPA makes some nods to privacy protection, like when it suggests that "properly anonymized access to LifeLog data might support medical research and the early detection of an emerging epidemic."
But before these grand plans get underway, LifeLog will start small. Right now, DARPA is asking industry and academics to submit proposals for 18-month research efforts, with a possible 24-month extension. (DARPA is not sure yet how much money it will sink into the program.)
The researchers will be the centerpiece of their own study.
Like a game show, winning this DARPA prize eventually will earn the lucky scientists a trip for three to Washington, D.C. Except on this excursion, every participating scientist's e-mail to the travel agent, every padded bar bill and every mad lunge for a cab will be monitored, categorized and later dissected.