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Spies Like Us

Wiretapping is nothing compared to other government data-mining


From the way they're carrying on in Washington, you'd think the National Security Agency is the only federal agency collecting data on people. In reality, the NSA wiretapping program that has caused such an uproar is one of the least intrusive data-mining enterprises the federal government currently has going.

If people had any idea what other federal agencies -- like the Department of Education, the US Mint and the Internal Revenue Service -- were up to or have planned, any brief concerns they might have had about NSA wiretapping would be all but forgotten. The NSA program is at least targeted at terrorists and potential terrorists. That can't be said of dozens of other government data-mining programs that truly do target innocent Americans.

Two years ago, some members of Congress began to wonder how many federal agencies were data-mining, or using computer-driven algorithms to search for patterns among the trails of data we leave behind when we use the Internet, credit or ATM cards, e-mail and our cell phones.

A survey of 128 federal departments by the Government Accounting Office (GAO) at the request of members of Congress found that 52 were using or planning 199 data-mining programs -- all of which was news to Congress.

It's a reality Columbia Law School Professor and privacy activist Tim Wu is trying to help Americans understand. When he lectures on the subject, he reminds people that every Internet search they've ever conducted is stored on a database somewhere. So is every automated financial transaction you've ever made. What the algorithms do is find the links among them -- what products you like, your interests, even your ambitions. This information is bought and sold in the private sector to help commercial interests better target customers. But it is also sold to the government, and when it's combined with the data the government already has on you, the information-gathering possibilities are virtually limitless.

Among the most common uses of data-mining listed by agencies in the report were fraud detection, analyzing intelligence, detecting terrorist activities and improving services and performance.

According to the GAO report, the Department of Education (DOE) reported the largest number of efforts aimed at detecting fraud, waste and abuse. It has no less than five data-mining programs that target those who apply for or take out grants, loans or other government-backed financial aid. At present, the DOE has a database of 13 million applications loaded with Americans' financial information. The programs comb the agency's records for information patterns on borrowers, but they don't stop there. Peoples' personal and private-sector records -- information they didn't give to the government -- are combed as well. The programs look for everything from fraud to terrorist activity, and one DOE program, called Project Strikeback, even compares the data the agency collects on applicants with data in FBI databases, some of which was collected by -- you guessed it -- FBI data-mining programs.

The IRS has long used internal data-mining programs to search for irregular patterns on tax filings. Now, four new data-mining programs the agency has planned will expand that practice outside government walls and allow it to monitor the financial patterns of taxpayers in the private sector.

Even the US Mint is getting into the game with its e-commerce fraud data-mining program, which uses personal, private sector and government data to search Internet fraud involving stolen credit cards.

The GAO report also identifies at least 15 programs that comb Americans' personal, private sector and Internet search records looking for terrorist or criminal activity. Among the agencies that use these programs are the Office of Homeland Security, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Department of Energy and the Information.

Meanwhile, as the Christian Science Monitor recently reported, the Office of Homeland Security is in the process of implementing ADVISE, a massive program that will collect and cross reference just about every electronic data trace people leave behind -- from news stories, e-mails, blog chatter and Internet searches to other financial and intelligence data -- in hopes of finding patterns that indicate terrorist planning.

But it doesn't stop there. The government is even mining its data-mining programs for data. The FBI and other surveillance agencies are taking data-mining to the next level by creating "data marts" or programs that collect data mined by other more targeted government data-mining programs and making it available to the "intelligence community."

Perhaps the most chilling part of this is that there is virtually no way to shelter your personal information from data collection. It's possible, of course, but few people would likely be willing to close their bank accounts, abandon their cell phones, make all their purchases in cash and only use the Internet from anonymous public library terminals.

In today's brave new technological world, it appears that increased convenience comes at the cost of one's personal privacy.

The GAO report, which every American should read, is available at But beware. At least six government agencies tracking Internet activity now have the capability to know you read it.

Tara Servatius' new radio talk show, "Citizen Servatius," airs Sundays from 11am to 1pm on WBT-1110AM.

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