The Total Information Awareness Gift Shop  

> Take me to the store NOW!
> Show me the logo nice and big
> Mysteries of the logo revealed


It began as a bit of a joke, a modest attempt at political satire spawned during an inane session of late night creativity. Then the New York Times ran a story about it.

The now infamous logo was created for the Information Awareness Office (IAO) of the Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The IAO is responsible for a controversial project at the Pentagon called Total Information Awareness. The project plans to analyze a universe of corporate databases (e.g. credit cards) and government records in quest of bad guys.

While finding bad guys isn't a bad idea many people have concerns that efforts such as this will invade our privacy and erode our civil liberties. Opposition to the Total Information Awareness project cuts across the political spectrum, from the ACLU to ultra-conservative politicians like Dick Armey. Further, the project is headed by none other than John Poindexter -- the Reagan administration Iran Contra participant who was convicted* of lying to Congress.

In early January, the IAO launched a website with their newly designed logo complete with the Latin motto "scientia est potentia" (knowledge is power). The creepy design and its disturbing symbology generated a torrent of criticism, and a few days later the logo was withdrawn. However, visitors to the website had already saved the logo and made it available on other websites. After some joking with friends I spent an hour late one night creating a t-shirt for Poindexter and his team. My enthusiasm got a bit out of hand and I added a few more products. Just couldn't help myself. With that the Total Information Awareness Gift Shop was born:

That night, I sent a half dozen emails to a few friends. Within three days $1000 of shirts, mugs, thongs, greeting cards, and other fine products were sold. It also generated $200 in profit which I had pledged to the ACLU. What a kick.

Then the Times called. I was bit leery going public with this. That had never been my intent. However, my youngest daughter is 15 years old, keenly political, and journalistically oriented. She thought this was about the coolest thing her dad had ever done. How could I tell her I didn't have the courage to make such a modest political statement? How could I tell her there might be some risk to making jokes about government surveillance projects in these troubled times? Couldn't. Didn't.

The New York Times piece ran in the business section on February 10, 2003. It can be accessed online or you can view an image of the article below.

Who's getting the profits from this vastly successful enterprise?   All proceeds from the TIA Gift Shop beyond the base cost of each product will go to the American Civil Liberties Foundation of the ACLU. The store has grossed more than $80,000 and generated approximately $20,000 for the ACLU.
What are the hot products?   Shirts and mugs top the list. But thongs are very popular and account for nearly ten percent of units sold. My daughter now refers to me as "the thong merchant for civil liberties." My family is very proud.
What's so bad about Total Information Awareness? There are a lot of bad guys out there.  

Now don't go getting serious on me. But it's a fair question. And it's also fair to expect the government to do all it can to find those bad guys. But, we need to do it in a way that doesn't destroy the very liberties we are trying to defend. Should the government be able to search records and databases to track down bad guys? Within reason, yes. With proper safeguards and oversight, yes. Should they be able to broadly scan the private information of law-abiding US citizens in an ongoing quest for bad guys? No.

One of the few things I still remember from college was a quote from some wise British lord by the name of Acton: "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Programs like Total Information Awareness will be abused. It's only a question of how badly and how frequently.

What has the Information Awareness Office in the Defense Department said or done about this?

According to the New York Times, Jan Walker, a spokesman for the IAO said "her bosses were aware of Mr. Gingras's efforts, 'but I don't think it's something that warrants comment from the government.'"

Of course, I'm a bit curious as to how the IAO was aware of my efforts. Maybe they are very very good at doing what they say they are not doing: spying on US citizens. Or, the New York Times reporter gave them the gift shop URL before Jan Walker's interview so that the IAO could look at it beforehand. I believe it's the latter but feel free to draw your own paranoid conclusions.

The IAO has also released a statement on its website about the logo, its origins, and their decision to withdraw it from use. The statement is question 15 in the IAO Frequently Asked Questions document dated February, 2003 which can be accessed here in PDF format or you can read just the text of question 15 by clicking here.

On Monday, February 10, 2003 the New York Times ran this piece by David Gallagher on page C4 of the business section.


I've concluded that the true accomplishment of this accidental affair was to get the venerable New York Times to run an edtiorial news photo of an article of intimate apparel -- specifically, a thong! Not a photo with a model or an actress in the fashion or entertainment sections. A news photo! I believe it's a first in the paper's long history. Please don't correct me if I'm wrong.

On Wednesday, March 12, 2003, the Washington Post ran this item in Lloyd Grove's Reliable Source column on page C3 of the metro section.  

Even scarier than the Total Information Awareness project is Pat Buchanan's pledge to model the thong. Please, Pat, don't!

We hear rumors that Monica Lewinsky has agreed to be the spokesperson for the TIA Gift Shop. True?


We don't think it's something that warrants a comment from TIA Gift Shop management.

Where do you make all that stuff? In your basement?  

Basement? I live in California, land of no basements. The answer is CafePress. They are the guys behind the retail curtain. Awesome site. One of the web's finest innovations. 'Nuff said. Go try it.

Did anyone else help you with this?  

Yes, there were a number of fine folks who provided guidance, some legal advice, and batches of encouragement mixed with verbal abuse. They prefer to remain in the background and I've agreed to respect their privacy. They know who they are, I appreciate their efforts, and I keep them in line by reminding them that I know the full details of their gift shop purchase histories.


* While Poindexter's conviction was reversed on appeal, it was reversed on the basis that he couldn't be prosecuted for lying to Congress because Congress had given him immunity in exchange for his testimony. So, get this: Congress gives him immunity so he'll be free to tell the whole truth but he then lies and effectively uses the immunity to defend his lies. Trustworthy guy? You decide.