National Public Radio’s Morning Edition has broadcast the second part of a two-part series on government surveillance. The first broadcast was on the tagging and tracking of data. This broadcast concerns data mining — data analysis in search of “some sort of discernable terrorist pattern.”
Notably, last year, the National Research Council released a report saying that data-mining programs don’t really work. “Automated identification of terrorists through data mining (or any other known methodology) is neither feasible as an objective nor desirable as a goal of technology development efforts,” the council said in “Protecting Individual Privacy in the Struggle Against Terrorists: A Framework for Program Assessment,”
Intelligence officials have been hoping for some time that vacuuming up vast amounts of information and putting it into a computer would uncover some sort of discernable terrorist pattern. The technique, known as data mining, is controversial because information on the innocent, as well as potential terrorists, ends up in the same database. Now it is increasingly unclear whether data mining will ever really work because terrorists don’t appear to have predictive patterns.
“We don’t even have enough of a data set to get a good pattern of ‘What does a terrorist look like?’ ” says Fred Cate of Indiana University’s Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research [and one of the writers of last year’s National Research Council report on data-mining]. “And terrorists, of course, are constantly changing their patterns because, quite simply, they don’t want to get caught.”
That’s why they use one-time cell phone numbers and drop-box addresses. […]
Intelligence agencies are moving toward using analysis software for their data-mined information because just hoping that some terrorist pattern emerges, at this point, seems like a dim light on a far-off field. Late last year, the National Academy of Sciences’ National Research Council said so little is known about how terrorists operate, analysts couldn’t spot a terrorist pattern even if there were one.
“The notion that if we just put billions into data mining, we’ll be safe, I don’t hear anyone advocating that any longer,” Cate says.