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A Times Editorial

Americans' privacy put at risk again

Even during the height of public fears in the wake of 9/11, a line was drawn at domestic surveillance that uses data-mining. With bipartisan support, Congress pulled the plug on Total Information Awareness, a Pentagon plan to build huge databases of personal information from credit card and travel records that would be trolled for suspicious patterns to ferret out terrorists.

This was a step too far into privacy, making all Americans suspects. But intelligence agencies have continued to work on these kinds of systems and, according to Wired magazine, the FBI is currently collecting databases that may well be used for data-mining. Just as the previous operation was halted, this one should be shut down.

The idea behind data-mining is that by tracking everyone's movements, communications and financial activities, it would be possible for a computer program to identify unknown terrorists while they are in the planning stages of an attack. In addition, beyond the looming specter of Big Brother, the theory has never proved workable. Last year, a committee of technical and policy experts funded by the Department of Homeland Security found that data-mining technology is not a useful tool for fighting terrorism and would produce significant rates of false positives. Counterterrorism resources would be expended tracking innocent people.

But it seems the FBI didn't get the memo. The FBI's National Security Branch Analysis Center has collected 1.5 billion records from public and private sources, and it seeks to obtain billions more. The records include nearly 200 million from commercial data brokers such as Accurint and Choicepoint; 55,000 records on customers of Wyndham Worldwide, a hotel chain that includes Ramada Inn, Days Inn and others; and 17,000 traveler itineraries from Airlines Reporting Corp. as well as government databases such as the suspicious activity forms filled out by banks on their customers.

In responding to congressional inquiries, the FBI claims that the multiple databases are being used to investigate suspicious individuals who are already known. But in 2008, in a formerly secret document, the FBI said that its data also would be used to look for patterns of behavior as a predictive model. That is classic data-mining.

What makes this all the more concerning is that the FBI is seeking other massive databases. Wired reports that the FBI, in its 2008 wish list, wanted the complete database of the Airlines Reporting Corp. That includes billions of Americans' travel itineraries, as well as the entire national Social Security number database. There are also 24 additional databases the FBI wants, but the names were blacked out in documents turned over to Wired.

And the National Security Branch Analysis Center wants to grow substantially in the coming years. In 2008, there were 103 employees and outside contractors working for the center. Its long-term plans call for 439 people.

A new data-mining program is the biggest fear, but even if the program is simply collecting databases as a tool to investigate known suspects, there are serious privacy concerns. Details of innocent people staying at hotels, renting cars and taking trips are being collected and stored by law enforcement even though the information is unrelated to criminal activity.

This program has sailed under the radar. It now needs a great deal more public and congressional scrutiny with an eye toward protecting what is left of Americans' privacy.

Americans' privacy put at risk again 10/03/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 3, 2009 11:38pm]
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