Data mining needs oversight, says U.S. Senate

Dozens of government data-mining programs collect private data about Americans with few civil liberties safeguards and some violate U.S. law, Democratic members of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee said Wednesday.

Democratic senators pledged to provide more congressional scrutiny for data-mining programs authorized by President George Bush’s administration. “All I want is the administration is follow the law,” Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, said during the Judiciary Committee’s first hearing since Democrats took over the majority in Congress this month. “They want us to follow the law — they should follow the law.”

Leahy pointed to the Secure Flight program operated by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) as one that violated U.S. privacy law. In December, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s privacy office issued a report saying the TSA failed to notify U.S. air travelers that their personal information was being collected.

Other government data-mining programs, including the Department of Justice’s ONE-DOJ database, allow U.S. agencies to share information “about thousands of individuals, including those who have never been charged with a crime,” Leahy said. The agencies can share the information with each other, with local law enforcement agencies, and even with private employers, he said.

“There’s only one group they don’t share it with — the ordinary Americans they collect data on,” he added.

At least 52 U.S. agencies use data-mining technology, and at least 199 data-mining programs were operated or planned by U.S. agencies in May 2004, according to a U.S. General Accounting Office report then. Leahy on Wednesday joined two other senators, one Republican and one Democrat, in introducing the Federal Data Mining Reporting Act, which would require federal agencies to report their data-mining activities to Congress.

The DOJ and TSA have defended their use of data mining, saying the technology helps catch terrorists and criminals. “TSA is firmly committed to protecting the privacy and civil liberties of travelers,” the agency says on its Web site.

Joining Democratic senators in calling for more congressional oversight of data-mining programs were Republican Bob Barr, a former U.S. representative from Georgia, and Jim Harper, director of information policy studies for Libertarian think tank The Cato Institute.

Barr, a long-time privacy advocate, said some government data-mining programs may violate several parts of the U.S. Constitution, including the Fourth Amendment, prohibiting unreasonable searches and requiring that warrants be issued only after probable cause, and the Fifth Amendment, guaranteeing U.S. citizens due process in legal cases.

“The data-mining practices of [the Bush] administration have meant that innocent people’s personal information is collected, which places them under suspicion without reason,” Barr said.

No studies exist that say predictive data mining, which attempts to identify new suspects by looking at data trends, is an effective way to catch terrorists, Harper added. “The result will be that you’ll get a lot of false positives,” he said. “You’ll waste a lot of time investigating innocent people.”

But James Jay Carafano, a foreign policy analyst at conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation, said data mining can assist law enforcement investigations. Data-mining programs can coexist with civil liberties if agencies follow privacy guidelines and have approval from Congress, he said.

Technology is “an important part of any set of courterterrorism tools,” he said.

Republican Senator Arlen Specter also questioned how many U.S. residents have been significantly harmed by data-mining programs. The U.S. government has stopped dangerous people from entering the country, he said.

“We sit here and listen to a high level of generalization,” he said. “How do we make that determination of what is an effective tool for counterterrorism?”