In February 2002, shortly after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, The New York Timespublished a story reporting that John Poindexter, the former national-security advisor to Ronald Reagan, had a new role: the head of the newly created Information Awareness Office, a subset of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
The purpose of the office, the story read, was to “focus on what the agency refers to as ‘asymmetric threats,’ or nonconventional military targets like potential terrorist organizations.” In practice, this meant monitoring civilian digital transactions—or, as DARPA called it, “Total Information Awareness.” By the end of that year, the program was the subject of a very public controversy, with privacy and civil-liberties advocates decrying its reach into citizens’ lives.
“The supersnoop’s dream: a ‘Total Information Awareness’ about every U.S. citizen,” the New York Times columnist William Safire wrote that November. “This is not some far-out Orwellian scenario. It is what will happen to your personal freedom in the next few weeks if John Poindexter gets the unprecedented power he seeks.”
The image chosen to represent the project wasn’t the sole source of the outcry—but it certainly didn’t help calm things down, either.
The IAO logo (DARPA)
“The logo of the Total Information Project,” Annie Jacobsen wrote in her book The Pentagon’s Brain: An Uncensored History of DARPA, “became the focus of much ire.” This was something of an understatement: The logo, which depicted the Eye of Providence turning its gaze on the globe, was a public-relations nightmare, fueling both criticism and conspiracy theories.
“They might just as well have used…