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August 30, 2005
Data Mining Attacks Privacy: Congress

In one indication as to why the Pentagon might have wanted to keep the existence of Able Danger from becoming public, Congress has determined that data-mining presents a danger to privacy, although so far no one has demanded an end to the practice. The GAO reports that a sample of five agencies using the technique routinely violated safeguards intended to protect citizens from unnecessary incursions by the government:

None of five federal agencies using electronic data mining to track terrorists, catch criminals or prevent fraud complied with all rules for gathering citizen information. As a result, they cannot ensure that individual privacy rights are appropriately protected, congressional investigators said Monday.

The agencies' lapses either "increased the risk that personal information could be improperly exposed or altered" or "limited the ability of the public including those individuals whose information was used to participate in the management of that personal information," the Government Accountability Office said.

A study by the GAO, Congress' investigating arm, sampled five of the dozens of federal agencies that use computerized data analysis: the Agriculture Department, FBI, Internal Revenue Service, Small Business Administration and State Department. It evaluated how one data mining activity in each agency complied with the Privacy Act, federal information security laws and government directives.

The ranking Democrat on the Senate government management subcommittee, Daniel Akaka of Hawaii, who requested the study, said the findings represent "a troubling trend given the number of data mining activities in the federal government that use personal information."

Without a doubt, data mining will cause problems with privacy, but rather than toss out the technique -- which appeared to work pretty well for the Able Danger team -- we should instead move to limit its application. For instance, the need for the Internal Revenue Service to conduct data-mining operations eludes me. The IRS already has its hands on almost every single movement of cash through the requirement of federal tax IDs and Social Security numbers for financial transactions to take place. What more does the IRS need, and what kind of information would it mine from open-source data? The same question should go to the Department of Agriculture. Those agencies that perform data-mining for non-critical purposes should drop it altogether.

On the other hand, those who have missions that involve national security should continue to use the techniques. The State Department had exemptions from many of the rules Congress put in place as its operations looked primarily outside the United States. The FBI needs to have the flexibility to make these connections on operations within the United States if we want to find the "sleeper cells" of Islamist terror that cause us so much concern. Context makes all the difference; Americans understand the need for wartime sacrifice. We will accept reasonable and limited incursions into our lives, especially regarding open-source data, in order to protect our nation from attack. We will rightly object to such measures, however, if the grand purpose of it only works to float the price of pork bellies or to figure out how to wring more taxes from our paychecks.

Congress should make clear the uses and parameters of data mining to head off major abuses of the data, and it should limit the use of this technique to critical national-security functions. Do not let the privacy-at-all-costs make us fight the war without the effective tools necessary to find our enemies before they find us.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at August 30, 2005 6:06 AM

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