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The Economist article on data mining
From: David Farber <dave () farber net>
Date: Mon, 29 Sep 2008 14:29:18 -0400
Begin forwarded message:
From: Kurt Albershardt <kurt () nv net>
Date: September 29, 2008 1:20:33 PM EDT
To: dave () farber net
Subject: The Economist article on data mining
Sep 25th 2008
From The Economist print edition
Last month, after a briefing by the Department of Justice about a
secret data-mining plan for the FBI, a group of American lawmakers
wrote to Mr Mukasey complaining that the plan would allow the FBI to
spy on Americans "without any basis for suspicion". The proposed
project could be made public in coming weeks.
No similar pan-European data-mining programme is operating, at least
to public knowledge. Yet under an agreement signed in July last year
airlines flying from the European Union to America have had to provide
the authorities there with reservations data, as well as information
obtained by airport-security screeners. This can include passengers'
race, religion, occupation, relatives, hotel reservations and credit
card details. Internet service providers and telecoms firms in the EU
must now keep for up to two years, though not automatically hand over,
data on websites visited and phone calls made and received (but not
the content of conversations).
Spies are increasingly snooping on private internet use. Katharina von
Knop, a data-mining expert at the University of German Federal Armed
Forces in Munich, says many systems remotely analyse the content of
web pages people visit. A man who has travelled to, say, Peshawar, a
stronghold of Islamist extremism in Pakistan, is considered more
dangerous if he also reads the blog of an extremist Muslim cleric. If
the cleric lives in Peshawar, the man's suspicion score rises further.
Data-mining software develops profiles by taking into account all web
pages visited by a computer user; if a suspect visits a stamp-
collecting website, the suspicion score is lowered.
Such profiling increasingly relies on "sentiment analysis". Hsinchun
Chen, head of the Artificial Intelligence Lab at the University of
Arizona says this technique, which he performs for American and
international intelligence agencies, is an emerging and booming field.
The goal is to identify changes in the behaviour and language of
internet users that could indicate that angry young men are becoming
potential suicide-bombers. For example, a person who exhibits
curiosity by visiting many Islamist websites and asking numerous
questions in online forums might be flagged by sentiment-analysis
software if he shows signs of resentment and eventually turns to
"radicalising" others by, say, justifying violence and providing links
to militant videos. Mr Chen says intelligence agencies in the United
States, Canada, China, Germany, Israel, Singapore and Taiwan are
customers for this technique.
Does it work?
Donald Tighe, vice-president for public affairs at In-Q-Tel, a non-
profit investment outfit that helps the CIA stay abreast of advances
in computing, says that data mining is now so powerful it has become
"essential to our national security". But campaigners for privacy have
many worries. One fear, prevalent in Britain after incidents in which
officials lost huge quantities of confidential personal information,
is that the state may be even more careless with data than private
firms are. Another is that innocents are flagged for further
investigation or added to "watch-lists" that may impede air travel,
banking and gaining jobs in places where radioactive materials are
used, such as hospitals. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a
lobby, says the list maintained by the Terrorist Screening Centre at
the FBI now has more than 900,000 names, with 20,000 more every month.
Being removed is tricky.
Data-mining may be bad for national security as well as for civil
liberties. The software is often modelled on the fraud-detection
applications used by financial institutions. But terrorism is much
rarer. So spotting conditions that may precede attacks is harder. Mike
German, a former FBI agent who now advises the ACLU, says intelligence
agencies too readily believe in the "snake oil" of total information
awareness, which drains effort from more useful activities such as
using informers and infiltrators.
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- The Economist article on data mining David Farber (Sep 29)