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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

<http://www.economist.com/world/international/displaystory.cfm?story_id=12295455 >


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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