A Pentagon project to develop a digital "super diary" that records heartbeats, travel, Internet chats - everything a person does - also could provide private companies with powerful software to analyze behavior.
That has privacy experts worried.
Known as LifeLog, the project aims to capture and analyze a multimedia record of everywhere a subject goes and everything he or she sees, hears, reads, says and touches. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, has solicited bids and hopes to award four 18-month contracts beginning this summer.
DARPA's research has changed lives far beyond the U.S. military before; it developed what became the Internet and the global positioning satellite system. The LifeLog research is unclassified, so its components could eventually be used in the private sector.
DARPA is also developing new anti-terrorism tools but says LifeLog is not among them.
Rather, the agency calls it a tool to capture "one person's experience in and interactions with the world" through a camera, microphone and sensors worn by the user.
More importantly, LifeLog's goal is to create breakthrough software that "will be able to find meaningful patterns in the timetable, to infer the user's routines, habits and relationships with other people, organizations, places and objects," according to Pentagon documents reviewed by The Associated Press.
DARPA's Jan Walker said LifeLog is intended for those who agree to be monitored. It could enhance the memory of military commanders and improve computerized military training by chronicling how users learn and then tailoring training accordingly, officials said.
But defense analyst John Pike of Global Security.org is dubious about the project's military application.
"I have a much easier time understanding how Big Brother would want this than how (Defense Secretary Donald H.) Rumsfeld would use it," Pike said. "They have not identified a military application."
Steven Aftergood, a Federation of American Scientists defense analyst, said LifeLog would collect far more information than needed to improve a general's memory - enough "to measure human experience on an unprecedentedly specific level."
DARPA rejects any notion LifeLog will be used for spying. "The allegation that this technology would create a machine to spy on others and invade people's privacy is way off the mark," Walker said.
She said LifeLog is not connected with DARPA's data-mining project, recently renamed Terrorism Information Awareness. Each LifeLog user could "decide when to turn the sensors on or off and who would share the data," she added.
But James X. Dempsey of the Center for Democracy and Technology, which advocates online privacy, fears users ultimately won't control LifeLog data.
"Because you collected it voluntarily, the government can get it with a search warrant," he said. "And an increasing amount of personal data is also available from third parties. The government can get data from them simply by asking or signing a subpoena."
He notes that traffic and security cameras and automated tollbooth pass records are already used by police to trace a person's path. Dempsey questions how LifeLog's analytical software, in the hands of other government agencies or the private sector, will interpret such data and how Americans will be protected from errors.
"You can go to the airport to pick up a friend, to claim lost luggage or to case it for a terrorist attack. What story will LifeLog write from this data?" he asked. "At the very least, you ought to know when someone is using it and have the right to correct the `story' it writes."
Dempsey does, however, see a silver lining in the government taking the lead.
"If government weren't doing this, it would still be done by companies and in universities all over the country, but we would have less say about it," he said. With the government involved, "you can read about it and influence it."
DARPA's Web site says the agency investigates ideas "the traditional research and development community finds too outlandish or risky." But wearable sensors similar to those envisioned for LifeLog are already being researched by well-heeled outfits.
Professor Steve Mann of the University of Toronto has spent 30 years developing a wearable camera and computer, progressing from intricate metallic headgear to dark frame eyeglasses and a cellphone-sized belt attachment. He's working with Samsung on a commercial version.
And Microsoft's Gordon Bell scans his mail and other papers and records phone, Web, video and voice transactions into a computerized file called MyLifeBits. The company may include the capability in upcoming products.
Neither Mann nor Bell intends to bid on DARPA's project. Bell said DARPA wants to go further than he has into artificial intelligence to analyze data.
Pentagon contracting documents give a sense of the project's scope.
Cameras and microphones would capture what the user sees or hears; sensors would record what he or she feels. Global positioning satellite sensors would log every movement. Biomedical sensors would monitor vital signs. E-mails, instant messages, Web-based transactions, telephone calls and voicemails would be stored. Mail and faxes would be scanned. Links to every radio and television broadcast heard and every newspaper, magazine, book, Web site or database seen would be recorded.
Breakthrough software would automatically produce an electronic diary that organizes the data into "episodes" of the user's life, such as "I took the 08:30 a.m. flight from Washington's Reagan National Airport to Boston's Logan Airport," according to the documents.
Walker said DARPA has no plans to develop software to analyze multiple LifeLogs. But DARPA advised contractors that ultimately, with proper anonymity, data from many LifeLogs could facilitate "early detection of an emerging epidemic."