Drilling Down Into Data Mining

As government agencies attempt to increase their authority to collect, analyze and share information, privacy rights defenders are calling on Congress to regulate data mining.

Data mining—its reliability, usefulness and threat to privacy—will be a recurring theme in Congress this year as government agencies attempt to increase their authority to collect, analyze and share information. Privacy rights defenders, worried about the governments habit of dipping into the private sectors wealth of stored data, are calling on Congress to regulate the increasingly popular technology.

Lawmakers charged with overseeing information policy are examining how government agencies and private enterprises sift through vast amounts of information, extract specific data and identify patterns. While businesses have long used the technology as a marketing tool and a means of estimating spending and revenue, there is a growing interest within government to use data mining in national security initiatives.

At a hearing this week of the House panel that oversees technology and information policy, lawmakers heard the concerns of the privacy rights community, which is pressing the government to design data searches that trace information but leave it anonymous unless special permission is granted to link it to an individual.

Jeffrey Rosen, associate professor at George Washington University Law School in Washington and an editor at The New Republic, called on the lawmakers to establish oversight authority over data mining. "Law enforcement has a long history of piggy backing on grand data warehouses [like TRW]," he said, suggesting that Congress should create a special oversight court to decide when the government would be allowed to link identifying data found during a mass search to transactional data thought to be evidence of a terrorism plan.

Congress has already curbed the executive branchs race toward unregulated data mining, voting to block funds for the Pentagons Total Information Awareness Program. But privacy advocates are concerned that the TIAP architecture—dubbed "mass dataveillance"—may be used as a model for other programs. Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Fla., who chairs the technology and information policy panel, said that the concerns over TIAP stemmed from the presumption that information would be shared between the public and private sectors.

Support for limited federal regulation also came from a Florida state senator, Paula Dockery, who told the congressional panel this week that data mining has been instrumental in her states tracking of terrorist suspects since Sept. 11. "We probably need some regulation to prevent us from going overboard," Dockery said.

Many federal legislators are reluctant to begin meddling in the rapidly evolving technology, however. Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., said he believed that the industry should be given a chance to develop its own standards.

Putnam said he will conduct a series of hearings on data mining over the next 18 months. "We will do what we can to determine where the fine line [between security and privacy] is, and we will attempt to walk it," he said.

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