NextGov discusses a new report, “Principles for Government Data Mining: Preserving Civil Liberties in the Information Age” (pdf), from the Constitution Project (a nonpartisan nonprofit group) concerning data mining, which includes privacy and civil liberties issues. The report notes:
Government data mining, which this report defines broadly, can offer significant benefits, but without adequate processes and controls, it can encroach on constitutional rights and values—including privacy, freedom of expression, due process, and equal protection. Innocent people could mistakenly be added to terrorist “watch lists,” leading to travel delays, reputational harms, or more serious consequences. Rogue government employees can abuse database access and look for information on the famous or infamous—as occurred with the 2008 presidential candidates. Careless contractors can lose laptops with unencrypted personal data.
In addition, not all types of data mining programs are equally valuable. Some, such as those that improve program efficiency and evaluate performance, are very worthwhile. Others, such as predictive pattern-based analysis for terrorism prevention, are evolving rapidly but, due to the particular difficulties of predicting terrorist activity and these analyses relative youth, their efficacy has yet to be demonstrated to the public.
Many federal efforts that arguably use data mining might be flying under the radar because the law requiring agencies to report on such activities applies a very narrow definition of the practice, according to a Constitution Project report released on Tuesday. Broadening that definition was among several policy recommendations the nonprofit organization made in the report.
Data mining, as currently defined, is the technique of performing searches to uncover patterns that could identify individuals involved in terrorist or criminal activities. Agencies need not include subject-based searches, where officials scan data for content that meets specific parameters, in annual reports the 2007 Data Mining Reporting Act mandates.
The 2009 report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, for instance, did not include many of ODNI’s counterterrorism efforts that use link analysis tools. Therefore, it lacked analyses of the effectiveness of the tools, and the technologies in use — all elements agencies are required to disclose for data mining activities that meet the law’s definition. […]
The federal government has applied data mining tools to detect tax fraud, as well as to investigate potential misuse of economic stimulus funds. The technique has broad security applications, but critics are concerned the collection and retention of data for mining might violate privacy, due process and free speech rights.
Homeland Security Department Chief Privacy Officer Mary Ellen Callahan discussed the report during a briefing on Tuesday with other information policy experts, but was not at liberty to endorse or oppose any of the suggestions. Regarding the meaning of data mining, she said, “My reservation would be — to expand the definition of data mining to cover all activities [would extend it] to essentially every time you set up a database.”