Senate tackles agency data mining issues

As Democrats take control of Congress, they are wasting little time bringing their concerns to the table. The incoming chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee used his first hearing of the 110th Congress to call for greater congressional oversight of the administration's data collection activities.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said earlier this month that he would reintroduce the Federal Agency Data-Mining Reporting Act, which would require agencies to inform Congress of their data-mining programs.

The senator and several witnesses testifying at a recent hearing said that unregulated government databases pose a threat to citizens' privacy without necessarily improving national security.

'I think Congress is overdue in taking stock of government databases that increasingly are collecting and sifting more and more information about each and every American,' Leahy said.

He said the Bush administration has repeatedly ignored privacy laws and bypassed Congress in development of programs such as the Transportation Security Administration's Secure Flight system to identify travelers who pose security risks.

Watch lists already are being used to screen airline passengers, and other agencies are developing more sophisticated systems to aggregate and analyze data in an effort to spot activities or relationships that could help identify potential terrorists. Critics say this can be an invasion of privacy.

Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the CATO Institute, and Leslie Harris, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, both said that the first question to be addressed is whether data mining is a worthwhile tool.

'We need to ask what risk it addresses and how well it addresses that risk,' Harper said.

'Data mining in the abstract is neither good nor bad,' Harris said. But, 'the executive branch is bewitched with the technology' without knowing whether it is effective.

Kim A. Taipale, executive director of the Center for Advanced Studies in Science and Technology Policy, said data mining can be made to work. (See Interview, Page 18.)

'You can't burden technology development by first requiring that they prove efficacy,' he said.

'You must pierce the veil of secrecy,' Harris said.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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