HOMELAND SECURITY

Data Mining Not a Panacea for Catching Terrorists, Experts Warn

2/1/2011
By Stew Magnuson
Data mining, loosely defined as a search to uncover novel patterns or relationships in large sources of electronically stored information, is being used by federal agencies as a counter-terrorism tool.

Meanwhile, “the technology and tools are developing more quickly than the law,” said Sharon Bradford Franklin, senior counsel of the Constitution Project, a nonpartisan think tank. It recently released a report, “Principles for Government Data Mining: Preserving Civil Liberties in the Information Age.”

The volume of electronically available data is expanding every year along with increased computing power that can be used to exploit it.

“We really don’t know the full scope of the government data mining counter-terrorism programs,” she said.

Paul Pillar, director of the security studies program at Georgetown University, said, “We have to have every tool available to us. Data mining is one important set of tools.”

However, it’s wrong to think that it can be used with any certainty to predict an act of terrorism. There was a lot of hand wringing after the foiled Christmas Day plot in 2009 when critics complained that the so-called underwear bomber should have been caught through link-analysis or “connecting the dots,” said Pillar, who spent 28 years in the CIA. But a link that seems apparent in hindsight is just one data point. The best that can be expected is that data mining will “improve the odds for the good guys,” he said.

There are always going to be tradeoffs when it comes to exploiting these databases and protecting civil liberties and privacy, Pillar said.

There needs to be leadership on this matter because public consensus on what government actions are acceptable in terms of privacy fluctuates. And decisions on what can and can’t be done should not be left to bureaucrats in the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice, or their agencies. It’s their job to implement decisions and not make policy, Pillar said.

The report said data mining has three dangers. One is that programs cloaked in secrecy may simply be ineffective and a waste of taxpayer dollars that could be better spent elsewhere. The second is that data is collected or exploited in ways that violate civil liberties. And the third is that a citizen is improperly flagged as a wrong-doer.

One solution would be to restore the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, which can review high sensitivity programs, Franklin said. Both the Bush and Obama administrations have failed to appoint enough members to the board to allow it to convene. About a week after the report was released, President Obama nominated two members to the board. Three more are required for a quorum. All nominees must be confirmed by the Senate.

Topics: Cybersecurity, Homeland Security

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