Home Government Report Finds Data Mining an Ineffective Way To Smoke Out Terrorists

Government Report Finds Data Mining an Ineffective Way To Smoke Out Terrorists

Remember the “pre-cog” cop-things in Minority Report, able to figure out who was going to commit a crime before they committed it? If that’s ever going to happen it looks like it’s going to have to be something super-natural – because at least these days, technology is a long way from able to predict who’s going to commit a crime.

A new 350 page report released today, written by heavyweights like former US Secretary of Defense William Perry, National Academy of Engineering President Charles Vest and sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security, argues that large scale data mining of consumer and other records is of “limited effectiveness” in finding suspects preparing to commit acts of terrorism.

The report was published by the National Research Council and was titled All Counterterrorism Programs That Collect and Mine Data Should Be Evaluated for Effectiveness, Privacy Impacts; Congress Should Consider New Privacy Safeguards. CNet’s Declan McCullagh says the report offers a retort to the aims of the office of Total Information Awareness, whose duties were dispersed throughout the Federal government after extensive controversy several years ago.

The report notes that while credit agencies have been able to use data mining to find fraudulent financial activities, the tactic is of limited effectiveness in finding would-be terrorists for two reasons. First, because so little about the psychology and behavior of terrorists is known and second, because the resulting data is so rife with false positives that it’s of very low quality.

The report argued that it was much more effective to use data mining to track known terrorists or to find people exhibiting very specific behavior. It warned against using such tactics as tracking emotional or psychological states as those are things the authors believe individuals should not be called to account for. Apparently that doesn’t go without saying anymore.

Much of the report’s summary, and clearly its title, focused on the privacy implications of these false positives in particular and of this kind of data mining in general. Presumably the report was written in a different era, before it became appropriate to try out for the Vice Presidency of this country with words like “Al Qaida terrorists still plot to inflict catastrophic harm on America, and [Barack Obama] he’s worried that someone won’t read them their rights.” (Palin acceptance speech) Evidently we live in a post-rights world now.

Thus what’s most significant in today’s report is the finding that pre-emptive data mining just doesn’t work. Surely the ineffectiveness of pre-emptive actions is significant, isn’t it? The report warned against using anti-terrorism data mining as an opportunity to find other actionable information.

The report offers a series of recommendations that include close monitoring of any such programs, possibly even including subjecting data-mining activities to regular data-mining based assessments of thier effectiveness. The report said that “legislation to clarify private-sector rights, responsibilities, and liability in turning over data to the government” was an area “ripe for congressional activity.” At a time when neither party running for the US Presidency is willing to mention anything like this, such recommendations might seem either refreshing or insane.

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