House Panel to Review Data Mining Programs

WASHINGTON — Possible privacy abuse issues arising out of the government use of data mining technology will be examined Tuesday morning by the House Subcommittee on Technology.

The hearing will explore instances where data mining technology is currently employed, examine the benefits and the pitfalls, and discuss the potential future uses of data mining by the government.

The technology allows users to sort through masses of information through database exploration, extract specific information in accordance with defined criteria, and then identify patterns of interest to its user. A user has the ability to tailor a data-mining program to a particular purpose by selecting a number of different databases to search through and setting the criteria for the search.

While the value and efficiency of data mining technology is widely acknowledged, there remains a certain amount of skepticism about the technology and the real and potential privacy issues it will engender.

In February, Congress cut off funding for the controversial Total Information Awareness (TIA) data mining program at the Pentagon, and earlier this month an amendment passed the Senate Commerce Committee to require Congressional oversight of the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System (CAPPS II) being developed by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

The TIA program aims to capture the “information signature” of people in order to track potential terrorists and has been sharply criticized by privacy and civil liberties groups. It is a project of the Pnetagon’s Information Awareness Office (IAO), which is under the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and is headed by former Reagan administration national security advisor John Poindexter.

The IAO’s stated mission is to “imagine, develop, apply, integrate, demonstrate and transition information technologies, components and prototype, closed-loop, information systems that will counter asymmetric threats by achieving total information awareness useful for preemption; national security warning; and national security decision making.”

Washington think thank Cato Institute interprets that as “a colossal effort to assemble and ‘mine’ massive databases of our credit card purchases, car rentals, airline tickets, official records and the like. The aim is to monitor the public’s whereabouts, movements and transactions to glean suspicious patterns that indicate terrorist planning and other shenanigans.”

As proposed by the TSA, CAPPS II would scan government and commercial databases for potential terrorist threats when a passenger makes flight reservations. Under the program, airline passengers will be required to provide their full name plus address, phone number and date of birth.

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

Despite the recent controversies, government agencies have successfully used data mining techniques extensively to identify and eliminate fraud, waste and abuse. States work with localities by providing them access to their data sources. This has allowed local and state enforcement agencies to zero in on tax evaders, perpetrators of financial crimes or those conducting any number of fraudulent activities.

At the federal level, the Treasury Department uses the technology to identify and prosecute money laundering schemes, the IRS to track down delinquent taxpayers, and U.S. Customs to identify drug trafficking activities at U.S. borders.

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, however, the need to obtain credible information in a more efficient manner has become a much higher priority for the government. The potential issues associated with national security and law enforcement have caused governments at all levels to examine in a more focused manner all available tools that could support the efforts to provide security and protection to the country.

That, in turn, has prompted civil liberties and privacy groups to raise fundamental concerns about invasion of privacy and the potential for abuse and misuse of information. Critics also question the reliability and integrity of the results produced by data mining.

According to a press statement, the House Subcommittee on Technology is interested in “airing the facts of how data mining technology has progressed, and its successes and its failures, in order to facilitate future discussion and debate on how use of this technology should proceed at the Federal level.”

Scheduled witnesses for Tuesday’s hearing include State Sen. Paula Dockery, majority whip of the Florida State Senate; Mark Forman , associate director of Information Technology and Electronic Government at the Office of Management and Budget; Jeffrey Rosen , associate professor at the George Washington University Law School and legal affairs editor of The New Republic; Dr. Jen Que Louie, president of Nautilus Systems; and Gregory D. Kutz , director of financial management and assurance at the GAO.

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