Justice report finds secretive FBI data mining widespread

The FBI is using data mining programs to track everyone from potential terrorists to individuals who file fraudulent automobile insurance claims, according to a U.S. Department of Justice report filed with Congress.

The DOJ report, which is required under the Patriot Improvement and Reauthorization Act of 2005, details six pattern-based data mining initiatives currently under way or planned by the department and its components.

“Each of these initiatives is extremely valuable for investigators, allowing them to analyze and process lawfully acquired information more effectively in order to detect potential criminal activity and focus resources appropriately,” a DOJ spokesman said in an e-mailed statement.

In a statement, Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the report was four months late and raised more questions than it answered.

The report “demonstrates just how dramatically the Bush administration has expanded the use of [data mining] technology, often in secret, to collect and sift through Americans’ most sensitive personal information,” he said.

At the same time, the report provides an “important and all-too-rare ray of sunshine on the department’s data mining activities,” Leahy said.

It would give Congress a way to conduct “meaningful oversight” he said. “I look forward to thoroughly examining the findings in this report with the attorney general and the FBI director in the coming weeks.”

Among the six FBI pattern-based data mining initiatives listed in the DOJ report are:

– A soon-to-be-launched program called the System to Assess Risk initiative designed to help FBI analysts focus in on individuals who may merit further scrutiny from a terrorist standpoint. According to the DOJ, the initiative will not “label anyone a terrorist.” Rather, it is designed to help the FBI save time by focusing on those who have already been identified as persons of interest.

– An identity theft intelligence project that examines customer complaints relating to identity theft to look for patterns suggesting major ID theft rings in a given area. The data mining effort has been used to identify trends and generate leads for the FBI since 2003.

– An initiative dating back to 1999 under which the FBI has been examining public records on real estate transactions to identify potentially fraudulent housing transactions.

Of the three other data mining programs, one is aimed at identifying Internet pharmacy fraud, another at fraud involving automobile insurance and the third at health-care-related fraud.

In all instances, adequate care has been taken to ensure that the right privacy and civil liberties protections are in place, the DOJ statement said.

“Each initiative is designed to supplement, not replace, traditional investigative methods. No action is taken based solely on the analytic products produced by these data mining initiatives,” the DOJ said. As such, they are governed by a slew of laws such as the Privacy Act of 1974 and the Federal Information Security Management Act of 2007.

The results generated by such data mining programs are used only as “pointers” or “leads” that are evaluated by investigators to determine if there’s a need for further action. “More-intrusive law enforcement techniques are still subject to independent legal requirements,” the DOJ spokesman said.

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