August 01, 2003
Restrictions On US Government Data Collection Buck A Larger Trend

US Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) has introduced a bill called the Citizens' Protection in Federal Databases Act which, among other things, would outlaw data mining by the federal government.

The bill also would prohibit data mining by the federal government. If the bill passes, no government employee or computer could sift through federal or commercial databases to search for individuals who fit a profile.

Thus, an FBI agent couldn't look in databases to find all the people who fit the pattern of a drug dealer, but could look up the name of a person who the agent suspected of being a drug dealer.

Think about this. Can commercial companies do data mining with commercial databases? Yes, of course. Very expensive systems containing enormous and continually growing databases are built for that purpose. If companies can get access to the data and if other governments can contract with the companies then where will this law lead us? If the federal government outlaws its own ability to do data mining searches then we will be in the curious position where US companies, foreign governments, and foreign companies will all be able to do data mining about American citizens even while the US federal government will not be able to do so. Depending on how far reaching this Wyden proposal turns out to be it may not even prohibit state and local government agencies to do data mining while the federal government won't be able to. Also, private individuals will increasingly be able to collect large amounts of information about each other.

There is something selectively Luddite about this bill:

The bill also prohibits all federal agencies from conducting searches of commercial data to create hypothetical scenarios of future terrorist attacks.

Federal investigative agencies are of course allowed to look for signs of a terrorist attack by using large numbers of agents to go out into the field to collect information by talking to and observing people. The agents can talk among themselves to compare and share with each other what they find. But in the view of Senator Wyden automated analysis of information collected for other purposes is considered too dangerous and ripe for abuse to allow the federal government to do it. So this bill seeks to deny federal agents many of the efficiencies in data collection and analysis that computers make possible.

Governments do inevitably abuse powers granted to them. Wyden's bill would probably prevent some abuses. Whether it will be a net benefit depends in part on how many threats could be discovered and neutralized by using computer data mining. But the bill seems somehow naive. The amount of data collected by and about people, companies, and governments is going to rise by orders of magnitude for the simple reason that the costs of collection and processing of the information will fall by orders of magnitude. An attempt to prevent just the federal government from making use of the enormous quantities of data is bound to create some unintended consequences. One consequence might be to put the US government at a distinct disadvantage in competing with other governments and with non-governmental groups which practice asymmetric warfare.

Ron Bailey of Reason reports on how Wyden and other US Senators have also recently shot down DARPA's attempt to form a trading market to collect information on political events in the Middle East and around the world.

The senators are objecting to a pilot project by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) called the Policy Analysis Market (PAM). As the PAM website explains: "Analysts often use prices from various markets as indicators of potential events. The use of petroleum futures contract prices by analysts of the Middle East is a classic example. The Policy Analysis Market (PAM) refines this approach by trading futures contracts that deal with underlying fundamentals of relevance to the Middle East. Initially, PAM will focus on the economic, civil, and military futures of Egypt, Jordan, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Turkey and the impact of U.S. involvement with each." The Pentagon envisioned enrolling 10,000 traders by October at a cost of $8 million to set it up.

Plus, this same cast of political characters also shot down the Pentagon's "Total Information Awareness" project. As Heather Mac Donald explains, this prevents US domestic intelligence agencies from modernizing their tools for gathering information on terrorists. Of course, when the inevitable attacks come the same cast of political characters will blame the FBI and other agencies for not foreseeing and preventing the attacks.

The fundamental problem with fighting against opponents who use asymmetrical warfare techniques is that they attempt to blend in to the civilian population. In many cases the only way to detect them is to use computers to scan thru a lot of information and detect patterns for how terrorist behavior deviates in subtle ways from that seen in the general population. There are not enough government agents to watch millions of people individually to look for tell tale signs. Without automated tools for detecting suspicious patterns many terrorists will likely go undetected.

Our future promises to be a surveillance free-for-all where individuals, companies, governments, and other organizations collect increasingly larger amounts of data about the actions of others. See my category archive Surveillance Society for many examples of technologies being used or developed to collect more information more easily about personal identities, activities, and movements.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2003 August 01 01:37 PM  Surveillance Society

Patrick said at August 3, 2003 3:52 PM:

Could the US Federal government just hire a private company to generate lists of suspicious characters? The private company could legally do this by data-mining.

Randall Parker said at August 3, 2003 4:00 PM:

Pat, a wealthy individual could hire the company. A big corp could do it. Foreign governments could do it. But my guess is this bill will prevent the federal government from contracting for this kind of work.

Sept. 11, 2001 is fading from memory. It will take another big attack for the terrorist threat to become a big priority again.

John Moore (Useful Fools) said at August 3, 2003 8:51 PM:


I fear that you are right. The privertarians have confused everyone on this issue. It is almost like the hysteria about nuclear power... all panic, no logic. And Al Quaeda has been smart to wait this long so that our awareness is decreasing.

BTW (and I hope I haven't mentioned it before here), I have a blog article discussing libertarianism and the surveillance state in the age of terror.

The basic concept is that we are in an age like mankind has never experienced: where a few people can kill huge numbers using a small device or compound. This leads to questions about whether longstanding assumptions about society (especially privacy) need to be re-examined.


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