WASHINGTON – It sounds like something from a Hollywood conspiracy movie: Huge databases of private citizens’ personal data – from parking tickets to Facebook status updates – being searched by government analysts.
A pattern emerges. An investigation begins.
Typically,people being investigated have no idea this is going on. They have no right to find out what information is about them is in the databases.
It’s called data mining. Supporters of the practice of compiling and analyzing individuals’ public and private records,say it is necessary to maintain national safety.
But opponents say it violates Fourth Amendment protections against unlawful search and seizure and it is not effective enough to justify the cost of maintaining the databases.
One Washington group,the Constitution Project,is asking the president and Congress to establish more oversight and accountability for data mining.
“We can adopt rules that both allow the government to harness the vast seas of information for our collective benefit and simultaneously protect the delicate relationship our Constitution established between the government and the governed,” the Constitution Project said in a data mining study released Dec. 7.
The study suggests governing practices for the executive branch and federal agencies. The Constitution Project provides legal opinions on constitutional issues.
Both government and private agencies use data mining. So-called fusion centers,which could be run by the government or private companies,bring information from multiple data banks together.
Clear lines of accountability do not exist for fusion centers or their employees. According to an article co-authored by Danielle Citron, law professor at the University of Maryland,and Frank Pasquale,law professor at Seton Hall,there is much confusion over whether state law or the federal Privacy Act of 1974 governs fusion centers.
Department of Homeland Security officials say state law governs fusion centers because they are operated by states,but federal employees working at fusion centers must follow the federal law,according to the Citron and Pasquale’s article.
Another problem critics cite is the number of false positives created by pattern-based searches. With a pattern-based search,analysts use a behavior profile to determine if someone could be a terrorist or other kind of criminal.
According to Citron and Pasquale’s article,53 political activists,including two nuns and a local political candidate,were flagged as suspected terrorists in a Maryland/District of Columbia database for their involvement in human rights groups and as peace activists and death penalty opponents.
The Constitution Project called on President Barack Obama and Congress to appoint and confirm members to the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. The board was created in 2008 to oversee data-mining searches,but it has never had any members.
Because most information obtained by data mining is classified,people outside law enforcement don’t know the extent of the existing programs,and it’s nearly impossible to know if someone was mistakenly flagged,said Sharon Bradford Franklin,senior counsel for the Constitution Project.
Citron said that it makes sense not to give information to a terrorist,but the secrecy makes it difficult for ordinary people to clear up a false interpretation of data.
Paul R. Pillar,a former CIA intelligence officer,said data mining improves the odds that investigations will catch and prevent future terrorist attacks,but a analyst needs to review the reports before flagging individuals as suspected terrorists.