Hamilton, Madison, and Jay

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

FBI setting sights on data mining

Two House members have a problem with the FBI's new data mining operations:

The FBI wants to compile a massive computer database and analyze it for clues to unmask terrorist sleeper cells. Two congressmen are worried about whether the bureau will protect the privacy of U.S. citizens.

Reps. Brad Miller, D-N.C., and James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., the chairman and ranking Republican on the House Science and Technology investigations subcommittee, asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate the proposal. Their June 4 letter to GAO was released Tuesday.

Miller and Sensenbrenner questioned both the FBI's ability to properly manage such a large trove of data and whether predictive data-mining even works or just falsely casts suspicion on innocent people.

The FBI is seeking $12 million in the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 for its Foreign Terrorist Tracking Task Force to set up a National Security Branch Analysis Center, with 59 employees, including 23 contractors and five FBI agents.

Justice Department budget documents submitted to Congress predict the center will hold 6 billion records by 2012 and "the universe of subjects will expand exponentially." That would equal "20 separate 'records' for each man, woman and child in the United States," the congressmen wrote.

The center "will leverage existing data-mining tools to help identify relationships between individuals, locations and events that may be indicators of terrorist or other activities of interest," the Justice documents said, and these efforts "will improve efforts to identify 'sleeper cells.'"

Eleven workers in a Proactive Data Exploitation unit will be assigned to ferret out patterns of suspicious behavior in the data, the congressmen wrote.

They said the program resembles the Pentagon's Total Information Awareness anti-terror data-mining research program. Congress ended TIA in 2003 out of privacy concerns, but much of its research was transferred to secret accounts in other agencies.

FBI spokesman Mike Kortan had no comment on the letter but pointed out that bureau policy requires that "we adhere to all established DOJ guidelines, FBI policy and the law" when data-mining.

Miller and Sensenbrenner quoted Jeff Jonas, a data-mining expert and IBM Distinguished Engineer, as saying "data-mining for terrorism discovery ... would waste taxpayer dollars, needlessly infringe on privacy and civil liberties and misdirect the valuable time and energy of the men and women in the national security community."

Jonas recently wrote that because there are so few known terrorist patterns of behavior, this kind of search would "flood the national security system with false positives — suspects who are truly innocent."

The two congressmen added that the FBI's history suggests "the agency may have difficulty developing and operating" such a center. "The FBI has historically been unable to develop information systems in a reliable cost-effective and technically proficient manner," they wrote.

Sensenbrenner was in favor of the data mining operations conducted by the NSA, and I might take his word on this issue, but I also know that there are certain patterns that terrorists here do follow. If this program has proper oversight, say the sort the president ordered on the NSA terrorist surveillance program, then this sort of program might just work. The other positive of this is that with this coming out of the media, the terrorists might do one of two obvious things:

#1 -- They'll make a mistake that leads to their arrest, a la the Fort Dix Six as they were caught by a random citizen, prompting notification of federal authorities.

#2 -- They'll think they're thoroughly undercover, unable to be detected, and that's after the federal authorities already have them under surveillance.

The latter is very likely. According to the information exposed in the Fort Dix plot, those guys were under surveillance by the FBI for quite a bit of time. The same goes for the JFK plot. While the arguments made that certain patterns may not be detectable, or might not be true from cell to cell, they are nuances between each cell. They operate in tight-knit groups, they share a hatred of the United States, and they take extra precautions -- possibly noticeable extra precautions -- that will tip off authorities.

Provided that there are safeguards in place to protect US citizens like Congressional oversight by one or both intelligence committees then there's a distinct possibility that this operation could work. Now, bear in mind I'm not all on board for this operation unless the proper steps are taken to protect the civil liberties of citizens. This doesn't apply to the Fourth Circuit Court's inept decision in proclaiming a foreign national having the same rights that we possess.

Publius II


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