Proposed FBI Data Center Sparks Privacy Fears

The FBI has asked Congress for $12 million to set up a new National Security Analysis Center. As envisioned, it would employ almost 60 people, including five full-time agents, to vigorously comb through existing FBI case information to find patterns that might tip them off to would-be terrorists.

The FBI has a variety of databases. One tracks people who are the subject of a special FISA warrant. Another keeps tabs on the terrorist watch list. Yet a third tracks people who are the subject of an investigation. The FBI says they want to create a center that will marshal all this information into one place.

"The idea of this system is to get all of these databases to talk to each other," said FBI assistant director John Miller. "Then, when one or two or three or four of these things set off an alarm, it tells us to bring that individual or group of individuals to the top of the list. Then we say a pattern has developed here that needs to be looked at."

Privacy Fears Raised

Critics of the proposed program say this is an FBI data-mining program by another name.

In its budget request, the FBI said it expected the new center would be sifting through some 6 billion pieces of data by 2012. That translates to roughly 20 records for every man, woman and child in America. The thought of storing that much information in one place worries people like Rep. Brad Miller (D-NC).

"We need to make sure that the information we're collecting about the American people is not abused," Rep. Miller said.

Miller is concerned that the new FBI analysis team, something the bureau calls its "proactive data exploitation unit," will go on an enormous data-fishing expedition, using data-mining techniques to comb though private information they aren't supposed to either have or see. He has asked the Government Accountability Office to look at the FBI's proposal to find out exactly how the center will work and what safeguards would be in place to protect Americans.

"The track record of the FBI and other agencies of handling information like this has not been encouraging," Miller said.

The FBI, for its part, says news and details about the center have been overblown. It isn't about data-mining, the FBI's Miller said; the proactive data exploitation unit is looking at people who are already considered suspects. They are already listed in the FBI's vast array of databases. Miller says the new center just offers a more efficient way to prioritize cases and see changes in a suspect's behavior.

Consider the Sept. 11 hijackers. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, investigators say the attackers did little to hide what they were up to — they left electronic footprints that traversed the country. The FBI now knows where they went, the cities in which they met the other hijackers, and even where and when they did flight training. If the hijackers had done the same thing today, they would have set up dozens of trip wires that would have alerted investigators to their intentions.

Preventive Sleuthing

The National Security Analysis Center would be a repository for all that information. It would also focus minds at the FBI for this kind of predictive (and preventive) sleuthing.

For all the hue and cry about privacy, there are a good number of Americans who say they are willing to give up some of their personal information if it means preventing another attack. They say they have nothing to hide.

Jim Harper, a scholar at the CATO Institute, worries about the FBI program becoming more expansive to include more personal information. And he thinks Americans, if they thought about it, would object to that.

"I always ask people who say they have nothing to hide for their wallets and start to look through them," Harper said. "They will blanch at that, if not refuse outright. That puts the lie to people who say they don't want their own privacy. They do."

That gets to the heart of why the FBI is likely to have a tough fight ahead. It has to convince skeptical lawmakers that the bureau isn't simply looking for a new way to sift through private information. The FBI's budget proposal seems to anticipate that argument: It requests funds for a full-time privacy officer at the new center.

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