Beware data mining

February 10, 2003

TOTAL INFORMATION Awareness not only sounds scary, it is.

A broad bipartisan coalition has been raising alarms about this new frontier in counterterrorism - "the most far-reaching government surveillance plan ever proposed," according to Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat. And recently the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a Wyden amendment to force the Defense Department to come clean on TIA and put its domestic use under congressional control. The House must jump on board.

Defense's TIA research gained speed after the 9/11 attacks. At its core is a process called "data mining," using powerful computers to scan unprecedented amounts of private information to detect threatening patterns. Corporate America now uses relatively simple versions of this process to profile, track and market to consumers, already raising privacy issues.

With the motto of "knowledge is power" and more than $130 million in funding, the Defense research aims to develop extremely powerful data-mining tools to cull phone, health, travel, Internet, education, credit card and other financial records to track millions of individuals. It's supposed to help solve the complex needle-in-the-haystack problem of advance identification of isolated terrorist activities.

But this raises very serious problems. First off, some experts question whether, in fact, TIA can effectively track terrorists, given the unfathomable amount of data to be sifted. Second, it's not clear how the government would rifle through all this information without a sweeping invasion of citizens' privacy rights. Third, the potential for all kinds of abuses - from inaccurate or misused data - is frightening.

As it is, the security of large databases of supposedly private information is highly suspect. With a Social Security number, crooks now can find out virtually anything about anybody, and as a result identity theft has become one of this country's fastest-growing crimes. If inaccuracies on credit reports can devastate consumers' financial lives, what would similar errors lead to in the hands of counterterrorism agents?

All this makes us plenty queasy - and that's even before taking into account that TIA research is run by retired Adm. John M. Poindexter, President Ronald Reagan's national security adviser, whose role in the Iran-contra affair hardly suggests the respect for the law needed to run something as sensitive as TIA.

The Senate amendment would give the Defense agency 60 days to report to Congress on its TIA work and its impact on civil liberties. It also would only allow military or foreign intelligence use without approval of Congress; applying TIA to the activities of U.S. citizens on U.S. soil would require approval. The amendment, attached to the omnibus spending bill, now must gain House support in a conference committee.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois, concerned about TIA's privacy implications, says "its fate is questionable." We hope that means the House will agree with the Senate's demand for greater TIA oversight. This - and other government initiatives like it - is a big step into a brave new world that may not make us any safer from terrorism but will make us more vulnerable to our own government's missteps.

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