Govt Computer Surveillance Rings Alarm Bells
By Andy Sullivan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Nine months after Congress shut down a controversial Pentagon computer-surveillance program, the U.S. government continues to comb private records to sniff out suspicious activity, according to a congressional report obtained by Reuters.
Privacy concerns prompted Congress to kill the Pentagon's $54 million Total Information Awareness program last September, but government computers are still scanning a vast array of databases for clues about criminal or terrorist activity, the General Accounting Office found.
Overall, 36 of the government's 199 "data mining" efforts collect personal information from the private sector, a move experts say could violate civil liberties if left unchecked.
Several 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.
Defense Department officials did not respond to a request for comment.
Data-mining software has been used by the government and private businesses for years to make sense of large piles of information. Banks use data-mining tools to sniff out possible credit-card fraud, for example.
Most government data-mining projects aim to improve service or cut down on waste and fraud, the report said.
The U.S. Navy tracks each ship part ordered since 1980 to see which ones fail most frequently, while the Department of Education checks its student loan records against those held by the Social Security Administration to make sure it is not loaning money to dead people.
Others projects raised red flags for privacy experts.
The Pentagon agency that handled TIA is not working on any data-mining projects, but another agency is mining intelligence reports and Internet searches "to identify foreign terrorists or U.S. citizens connected to foreign terrorism activities," the report said.
That description prompted Electronic Privacy Information Center general counsel David Sobel to file a Freedom of Information Act request to find out more about the project.
"Congress now needs to take a close look at ways to oversee and regulate the use of data-mining technology within the government," he said.
Hawaii Democratic Sen. Daniel Akaka said he had asked the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, to examine some projects more closely.
"The federal government collects and uses Americans' personal information and shares it with other agencies to an astonishing degree, raising serious privacy concerns," Akaka said in a statement.
The report shows that data mining can be a useful tool for the government, but safeguards should be put in place to ensure that information is not abused, said Nuala O'Connor Kelly, chief privacy officer at the Department of Homeland Security.
Swire said the report did not appear to list any Justice Department programs that use information from data aggregators ChoicePoint Inc. and Acxiom Corp., even though the agency has signed contracts with those companies.
The Justice Department did not return a call seeking comment.
The report also failed to note a planned airline passenger-screening system that has drawn widespread criticism from lawmakers and air travelers.