By Cynthia L. Webb washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Thursday, May 27, 2004; 4:05 PM
The question of whether privacy and technology can be reconciled has become one of the 21st century's biggest dilemmas.
First it was the debate over the Patriot Act and its provisions granting law enforcement vast new powers to surveil electronic communications. The privacy advocates lost that fight in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
After that, the tide appeared to shift a bit. The Total Information Awareness project, envisioned by the Pentagon's high-tech research arm as a system to mine information from databases worldwide to detect potential threats, was derailed last year after media reports sparked a public outcry.
The privacy vs. technology debate made the headlines again last week when the American Civil Liberties Union reported that what was supposed to be a state-led anti-crime database effort was actually heavily supported by the federal government. The so-called Matrix program, the ACLU said, not only received millions in federal support, but the contractor who helped build the system gave the feds and Florida officials a list of 120,000 people who fit the profile of a "potential terrorist."
It's hard to say what effect the ACLU report will have on Matrix's future -- Eleven of the 16 states originally on board for the Matrix pilot program have already dropped out over concerns about how information would be stored in the system's central database. But today's New York Times reminds privacy advocates that they've got a huge challenge cut out for them.
Uncle Sam, it turns out, has been quietly rolling out scores of programs that sniff for personal data. "A survey of federal agencies has found more than 120 programs that collect and analyze large amounts of personal data on individuals to predict their behavior. The survey, to be issued Thursday by the General Accounting Office, an investigative arm of Congress, found that the practice, known as data mining, was ubiquitous," The New York Times reported today. "In canvassing federal agencies, the accounting office found that 52 were systematically sifting through computer databases. These agencies reported 199 data mining projects, of which 68 were planned and 131 were in operation. At least 122 of the 199 projects used identifying information like names, e-mail addresses, Social Security numbers and driver's license numbers."
According to the Times, the GAO report "provides the first authoritative estimate of the extent of data mining by the government. It excludes most classified projects, so the actual numbers are likely to be much higher." The top data-miner? "The Defense Department made greatest use of the technique, with 47 data mining projects to track everything from the academic performance of Navy midshipmen to the whereabouts of ship parts and suspected terrorists." And, the Times noted, the "Defense Intelligence Agency mines data from the intelligence community and searches the Internet to identify people, including United States citizens, who are most likely to have connections to foreign terrorist activities."
Reuters said several of the data-mining efforts detailed in the GAO report "appear to be patterned after Total Information Awareness, which critics said could have led to an Orwellian surveillance state in which citizens have little privacy. 'I believe that Total Information Awareness is continuing under other names, and the (Defense Department) projects listed here might fit that bill,' said Peter Swire, an Ohio State University law professor who served as the Clinton administration's top privacy official."
Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), who requested the GAO report, posted a statement about it on his official Web site.
The Matrix Revealed
Back to the ACLU report. Matrix, short for Multistate Antiterrorism Information Exchange, was launched after the Sept. 11 attacks with support from the Justice Department. The ACLU has two main concerns about the program: That the Department of Homeland Security quietly gave millions to support Matrix and may have been actively engaged in administering the program; and that the Matrix's primary contractor -- Boca Raton, Fla.-based Seisint Inc. -- generated a list of potential terrorists shortly after Sept. 11 and gave that information to the government.