RealTime IT News

Americans Get Shaft Over Data Mining

WASHINGTON -- Remember CAPPS II? Total Information Awareness? Information signatures? John Poindexter?

Three years ago, the Bush Administration sparked a firestorm of controversy over its various data mining programs designed to gather intelligence through electronic sources such as the Internet, telephone and fax lines on possible terrorist activities.

There was only one problem with the plan: the government didn't have enough data to mine.

Why? There are privacy laws in the United States. For instance, search warrants.

Undeterred by either the widespread criticism or the law, the Bush administration plunged ahead.

First there was the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System (CAPPS II), offered up by the Transportation Security Administration of the Department of Homeland Defense.

The original scheme was for the TSA to scan government and commercial databases for potential terrorist threats when a passenger makes flight reservations.

Under the program, airline passengers would have been required to provide their full name plus address, telephone number and date of birth.

Once that information was entered, the airline computer reservation system would automatically link to the TSA for a computer background check on the traveler that would include a credit, banking history and criminal background check.

The TSA backed off the scheme and promised to "refine and improve" the idea.

And then there was Poindexter and his Total Information Awareness (TIA) program, which sought to capture through massive data mining the "information signature" of people to track potential terrorists and criminals.

Poindexter, a controversial figure in the Reagan administration's Iran-Contra scandal, went so far as to put up a Web site to help predict terrorist events through the online selling of "futures" in terrorist attacks.

Both the program and Poindexter went away, but the desire to data mine -- legally or illegally, it appears -- didn't cease for Bush officials.

Just five months ago, The New York Times revealed that AT&T was collaborating with the National Security Agency (NSA) in what the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) called a "massive and illegal program to wiretap and data-mine Americans' communications," including their telephone calls and e-mail.

The EFF filed a class action suit against AT&T, litigation the Department of Justice is trying to quash on national security grounds.

There were also dark implications that "others" beside AT&T might be cooperating with the NSA.

Thursday, USA Today added Verizon and BellSouth to the list, claiming the NSA -- with the full cooperation of the country's largest telecom companies -- has built a secret, massive database of "tens of millions" of Americans' telephone calls.

Collectively, the three telecom giants have 224 million customers who make billions of calls a year.

In the EFF lawsuit, the Internet advocacy group claims AT&T turned over without a subpoena not only its customers' telephone records but also their e-mail.

"Based on my understanding of the connections and equipment at issue, it appears the NSA is capable of conducting what amounts to vacuum-cleaner surveillance of all the data crossing the Internet -- whether that be people's e-mail, Web surfing or any other data," former AT&T technician Mark Klein, the EFF's star witness, said in a statement released by his lawyers.

Is there any reason why Verizon and BellSouth didn't do the same thing?

Within hours of the USA Today story, President Bush denied his administration is "mining or trolling through the personal lives of innocent Americans."

Then just exactly what is it doing with all that information?

"We obviously can't accept the administration's vague assurances that the program isn't harming innocent Americans," Jim Dempsey, the policy director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, said Thursday.

"This latest disclosure reinforces what we have been saying for months: Congress needs to conduct a comprehensive, in-depth and public inquiry into the scope of warrantless domestic surveillance."

Dempsey will get his wish in the coming weeks with Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, calling for hearings.

"We're going to call on those telephone companies to provide information to try to figure out exactly what is going on," Specter said.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Ver.), the ranking Democrat on the panel, was all over the media Thursday denouncing Bush.

"Unfortunately, the Congress has acted like a wholly-owned subsidiary of the White House and has rubber stamped everything that's gone on," he said on PBS last night.

"And then we usually find out through the press, whoops, they weren't following the law."

Leahy added, "The president has said more times than all the presidents put together in history, through signing documents, that he will follow only parts of the law that he signs."

It's good to see both Republicans and Democrats growing a spine when it comes to dealing with the Bush administration. Too often in the past, both parties have turned a blind eye in the name of national security.

Through the Patriot Act and other legislative moves, Congress has given the president all the tools he needs to fight terrorism.

Let's not add a massive domestic spying program built on the slimmest of legal reasoning.