Govt report: Data mining doesn't work well
- Government report: Data mining doesn't work well
by Declan McCullagh
The most extensive government report to date on whether terrorists can
be identified through data mining has yielded an important conclusion:
It doesn't really work.
A National Research Council report, years in the making and scheduled to
be released Tuesday, concludes that automated identification of
terrorists through data mining or any other mechanism "is neither
feasible as an objective nor desirable as a goal of technology
development efforts." Inevitable false positives will result in
"ordinary, law-abiding citizens and businesses" being incorrectly
flagged as suspects.
The whopping 352-page report, called "Protecting Individual Privacy in
the Struggle Against Terrorists," amounts to at least a partial
repudiation of the Defense Department's controversial data-mining
program called Total Information Awareness, which was limited by
Congress in 2003.
But the ambition of the report's authors is far broader than just
revisiting the problems of the TIA program and its successors. Instead,
they aim to produce a scholarly evaluation of the current technologies
that exist for data mining, their effectiveness, and how government
agencies should use them to limit false positives--of the sort that can
result in situations like heavily-armed SWAT teams raiding someone's
home and shooting their dogs based on the false belief that they were
part of a drug ring.
The report was written by a committee whose members include William
Perry, a professor at Stanford University; Charles Vest, the former
president of MIT; W. Earl Boebert, a retired senior scientist at Sandia
National Laboratories; Cynthia Dwork of Microsoft Research; R. Gil
Kerlikowske, Seattle's police chief; and Daryl Pregibon, a research
scientist at Google.
They admit that far more Americans live their lives online, using
everything from VoIP phones to Facebook to RFID tags in automobiles,
than a decade ago, and the databases created by those activities are
tempting targets for federal agencies. And they draw a distinction
between subject-based data mining (starting with one individual and
looking for connections) compared with pattern-based data mining
(looking for anomalous activities that could show illegal activities).
But the authors conclude the type of data mining that government
bureaucrats would like to do--perhaps inspired by watching too many
episodes of the Fox series 24--can't work. "If it were possible to
automatically find the digital tracks of terrorists and automatically
monitor only the communications of terrorists, public policy choices in
this domain would be much simpler. But it is not possible to do so."
A summary of the recommendations:
* U.S. government agencies should be required to follow a systematic
process to evaluate the effectiveness, lawfulness, and consistency with
U.S. values of every information-based program, whether classified or
unclassified, for detecting and countering terrorists before it can be
deployed, and periodically thereafter.
* Periodically after a program has been operationally deployed, and in
particular before a program enters a new phase in its life cycle, policy
makers should (carefully review) the program before allowing it to
continue operations or to proceed to the next phase.
* To protect the privacy of innocent people, the research and
development of any information-based counterterrorism program should be
conducted with synthetic population data... At all stages of a phased
deployment, data about individuals should be rigorously subjected to the
full safeguards of the framework.
* Any information-based counterterrorism program of the U.S. government
should be subjected to robust, independent oversight of the operations
of that program, a part of which would entail a practice of using the
same data mining technologies to "mine the miners and track the
* Counterterrorism programs should provide meaningful redress to any
individuals inappropriately harmed by their operation.
* The U.S. government should periodically review the nation's laws,
policies, and procedures that protect individuals' private information
for relevance and effectiveness in light of changing technologies and
circumstances. In particular, Congress should re-examine existing law to
consider how privacy should be protected in the context of
information-based programs (e.g., data mining) for counterterrorism.
By itself, of course, this is merely a report with non-binding
recommendations that Congress and the executive branch could ignore. But
NRC reports are not radical treatises written by an advocacy group; they
tend to represent a working consensus of technologists and lawyers.
The great encryption debate of the 1990s was one example. The NRC's
so-called CRISIS report on encryption in 1996 concluded export
controls--that treated software like Web browsers and PGP as
munitions--were a failure and should be relaxed. That eventually
happened two years later.
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