Free Sgt. Star: Army Ignores FOIA Request for Artificial Intelligence Records


This article, written by media relations coordinator and investigative researcher Dave Maass, was originally published by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Sgt. Star is a 6-foot-1, clean-shaven, strong-jawed white male, with eyes that match the camouflage pattern on his combat uniform. His voice is deep, authoritative and carefully enunciative. He seems to be in his 30s, but he is actually only about 7 years old.

Sgt. Star is not a real person, or at least not a corporeal one. He is a chatbot — an artificial intelligence program designed to hold conversations — that was commissioned by the U.S. Army to help with recruitment efforts. He can recognize questions and dispense answers, verbally and in text, and also help the user surf the website. According to marketing materials, he has answered more than 11 million questions so far.

Last year, the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a request with the Army to see if EFF could obtain him, or elements of him, through the Freedom of Information Act. More than 75 calendar days have passed, and the Army still hasn’t responded — not even to say it’s withholding the records.

Contemplation of military service is one the most personal and life-altering decisions an American can undertake, with lasting consequences. EFF is interested in learning how Sgt. Star works, what questions he was programmed to answer and whether the Army has found the project effective. As electronic privacy advocates, EFF also hopes to determine what happens to the records of conversations Sgt. Star has with potential recruits.

As chatbots grow in popularity, particularly in a commercial setting (a reporter from TIME even discovered a chatbot posing as a telemarketer), Sgt. Star is often pointed to as a successful model of how this technology can be used as a replacement for humans in providing customer service. The SGT STAR project (officially, it’s all-caps) began in 2007 with a partnership between U.S. Army Accession Command and the Spokane, Wash.-based company Next IT, which sells “intelligent virtual assistants” to businesses. In the years since Sgt. Star’s inception, he has expanded beyond his GoArmy interface and potential recruits can now interact with him through Facebook or download him to their mobile phones via an app launched by the Army last year. Sgt. Star also makes appearances at public events, such as NASCAR races and Future Farmers of America gatherings, where users can talk to a full-size projection developed by the Institute for Creative Technologies at University of Southern California.

EFF contacted programmer Bruce Wilcox, two-time winner of the Loebner Prize for Artificial Intelligence (aka “The First Turing Test”) for advice on what to ask for in a FOIA request. Wilcox suggested EFF seek Sgt. Star’s input patterns (all the phrases and keywords Sgt. Star is pre-programmed to recognize) and the scripted output answers (all the possible things Sgt. Star could say). In the FOIA letter, EFF requested these files as they existed for each year between 2007 and 2013, in order to compare how Sgt. Star’s answers evolved to reflect developments in global conflicts, changes to military benefit packages and new policies, such as the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

To cover its bases, EFF widened the FOIA request to include all contracts regarding Sgt. Star, all annual and quarterly reports that reference Sgt. Star, any audits, and any privacy policies associated with the program. EFF also asked for whatever analytical data might be available, such as the number of conversations Sgt. Star has had, the duration of those conversations, the general geolocation of the users (broadly), the number of conversations that resulted in direct communication with a human recruiter and any estimate of manpower saved by using the AI.

Once EFF crafted the request, the next challenge was to determine which agency was responsible for Sgt. Star. With the disestablishment of the Accession Command in September 2012, it was unclear which division had inherited Sgt. Star. EFF started with the public affairs office of the U.S. Army Recruiting Command (USAREC) in Fort Knox, Ky. From there, EFF’s request bounced to the Army Marketing and Research Group, a new division created in October 2012. A representative initially said he would follow up in a week and get EFF whatever he could. That was last November, and EFF has yet to receive any further response, despite a follow-up letter filed shortly after the Army missed the 20-day FOIA response deadline. EFF even sent the Army a note that it was writing this blog post.

The Army can’t argue that none of the records EFF requested can be released. Sgt. Star’s individual responses are already publicly available on the Internet, provided a user enters all of the possible questions into the chat interface, so there’s no reason the script should not be available in aggregate. Next IT uses basic Sgt. Star statistics in its marketing materials. For example, the program has a 94 percent accuracy rate in answering questions and the average user interacted with the program for 10.4 minutes. The fact that a private company can access this data, but the public cannot, raises questions about both privacy and government transparency.

When filing a FOIA request like this, it’s important to anticipate how the release of information would serve the public interest. Military recruitment practices have long been a subject of public controversy, whether it’s regarding protests over recruiters on school campuses or the use of video games to spur combat interest in youths. Everyone from veteran advocates to peace activists to budget watchdogs could review how the Army uses emerging technology to inform and persuade potential recruits. Social commentators could create satire through augmented version of Sgt. Star by plugging his input and output scripts into a publicly available chatbot engine. EFF is especially concerned with how personal data is collected, stored and shared beyond what is disclosed in the online privacy policy for chatting with human recruiters. As government transparency activists, EFF also wants to ensure that digital records stored in unconventional databases are in the public domain.

When the Army Marketing and Research Group was founded, the division’s director, Mark S. Davis, said its mission was to “make the Army more transparent to the American public; explained in a way that is accessible and shows how truly extraordinary the U.S. Army and the American Soldier are.” If he still believes that, his office should let the American people see how truly extraordinary the Army’s virtual recruiter is by responding to EFF’s FOIA request.

Free Sgt. Star.

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