Feds Look at Data Mining

Plans evaluated for national security.

The government now calls it "factual data analysis," but data mining by any other name smells as potentially rotten to civil liberties advocates.

The U.S. House subcommittee on technology and information policy last week heard from three federal proponents of the technology to consider whether it enhances national security. Civil liberties activists are urging Congress to increase its role in overseeing the governments use of such technologies.

Three federal agencies—the Pentagons Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Transportation Security Administration and the FBI—are developing new data analysis systems. The systems are slated to move beyond the tactics of traditional data mining, typically used for marketing purposes, to more targeted approaches. Nonetheless, they are built on the cornerstone of detecting patterns and relationships in huge volumes of data.

Critics of data mining say that while the technology is guaranteed to invade personal privacy, it is not certain to enhance national security. Terrorists dont operate under discernable patterns, critics say, and therefore the technology will likely be targeted primarily at innocent people.

James Loy

By the summer of next year, airport lines will be shorter and decisions as to which passengers are given extra screening will seem less arbitrary, according to TSA Administrator James Loy (pictured), based here. New prescreening technologies under development will create a more standardized risk assessment program, Loy testified.

Airlines today use TSAs Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening program to determine which passengers must undergo enhanced screening before boarding a plane, and the agency is developing CAPPS II, which will be more effective at identifying high-risk passengers, according to Loy.

The new system will use "dynamic intelligence information" to select passengers for extra screening. Under CAPPS II, the percentage of airplane travelers going through extra screening is expected to drop significantly from the 15 percent that undergo it today, Loy told lawmakers.

Addressing one concern of the privacy rights community, Loy testified that CAPPS II will not store large quantities of data or retain data on passengers who are cleared to board planes. After travel is completed, the records will be purged, he said.

Loy also testified that the systems authentication function will be conducted mostly by nongovernment databases with commercially available data, and the employees of the data companies will not directly view the passengers personal information.

DARPA is pursuing a somewhat-different kind of data mining, according to DARPA Director Anthony Tether, also based here. Recognizing that identifying complicated terrorist plots requires detecting extremely rare patterns, the Pentagons research agency is developing technology to search for evidence of specified patterns, Tether said in written testimony to the subcommittee.

DARPAs new project, previously referred to as the Total Information Awareness program, begins with the development of terrorism scenarios based on previous attacks, intelligence analysis, "war games in which clever people imagine ways to attack the United States and its deployed forces," and other information, Tether testified. Then data would be queried using "either known, identified suspects or known, identified patterns," he said.

Subcommittee Chairman Adam Putnam, R-Fla., said the subcommittee panel will meet in two weeks to look at the privacy and personal-freedom questions raised by data mining.

According to privacy rights advocates, DARPA has issued conflicting information about the project.

"Theyve used the words predictive analysis many times, which sounds much more like an attempt to look at information about all of us," said David Sobel, general counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, in Washington.