RealTime IT News

Data Mining Giving Privacy the Shaft?

WASHINGTON – Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy began his reign as chairman of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee today by promising to bring oversight and legislation to the government's data mining programs.

To those ends, he revived legislation that he claimed would "restore key checks and balances" by requiring federal agencies to report to Congress about the effectiveness of their data mining programs.

The Federal Agency Data Mining Reporting Act of 2007 is similar to legislation introduced in the last session of Congress by Leahy, Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

The latest bill would mandate that federal agencies reveal their development of data mining programs to discover predictive or anomalous patterns indicating criminal or terrorist behavior. It would require them to disclose what data mining programs they are using and to disclose how effective they've been in predicting terrorist acts.

In the first of a series of hearings he plans on privacy rights, Leahy said neither the former Republican majority in Congress nor the Bush administration properly balanced privacy rights against a proliferation of U.S. data mining programs.

"Although billed as counter-terrorism tools, the overwhelming majority of these [programs] use, collect and analyze personal information about ordinary American citizens," Leahy said. "Despite their prevalence, these government data mining programs often lack safeguards to protect privacy and civil liberties."

According to the General Accountability Office and the CATO Institute, the government currently has 52 different agencies using almost 200 different data mining programs.

"Without the proper safeguards and oversight of…government data mining programs, the American people have neither the assurance that these massive data banks will make us safer, nor the confidence that their privacy rights will be protected," Leahy said.

During today's Judiciary hearing, Feingold said the bill allows for federal agencies to provide classified information to Congress separately under security measures.

"Many Americans are understandably spooked about the specter of secret government programs analyzing vast quantities of public and private data about everyday pursuits of mostly innocent people in search of patterns of suspicious activity," Feingold said.

Former Republican Congressman Bob Barr, who heads now heads the public policy consulting firm Liberty Strategies, told the committee it was time for Congress to begin asking hard questions about the government's data mining efforts.

"As a former member of Congress, I have been disappointed to see Congress shirk its responsibility to the American people and sit silently by while the Constitution is gutted of meaning," he said.

According to Barr, data mining threatens a number of constitutional rights. He used an example of an American learning Arabic to help the country fight terrorism. As part of the program, the individual travels to Egypt, which maintains close ties to the U.S., to further study the language. Barr said when the individual applies for a government he likely wouldn't pass a background check because a government database shows he traveled to Egypt.

He also pointed out the First Amendment "implies" a right to move freely throughout society but current airport security checks puts everyone under suspicion. Data mining, he said, even restricts Americans' First Amendment guarantees for freedom of association.

"Using link-analysis data mining, a person can easily be found guilty by association," he said. "This means that anyone who comes into contact – even incidental contact – with a person whose name appears on some list as a terrorist suspect, becomes a terrorist suspect themselves."

Barr added, "Once a person is linked to a terrorist, it is virtually impossible to clear his or her name, if they even know they have come under suspicion."

Barr and others giving testimony even questioned the ability of data mining to produce the results sought by the government.

"No scientist has ever demonstrated that the government can predict who will commit an act of terror at some future date," Barr said. "Yet, the government spends tens of billions of taxpayers' dollars on data mining programs each year: collecting, manipulating, retaining and disseminating the most personal and private information on unknowing American citizens and others."

Leslie Harris, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, warned the committee the Bush administration is "bewitched" by data mining technology and that a major shift in data collection on private citizens is taking place without suitable privacy safeguards.

She called the current climate of technological innovation, increased government power and outdated legal protections to be a "perfect storm" for privacy rights violations.

Former Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter kept his comments brief but questioned the "very, very high level of generalization" panel members used in their testimony.

But Barr, Specter's fellow Republican, minced no words.

"This administration has time and again proved to do what it wants. That leads to a culture of suspicion," he said. "Until Congress does something about it, the administration will continue to thumb its nose [at Congress]."