Safeguarding Privacy While Mining Data The government possesses powerful data-mining technology to find patterns that could help catch suspected terrorists. But it must use it in a way that doesn't hurt ordinary Americans, the head of a government advisory panel says.
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Safeguarding Privacy While Mining Data

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Safeguarding Privacy While Mining Data

Safeguarding Privacy While Mining Data

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

That eavesdropping that General Hayden oversaw, and will be asked about, was not the first time the government has tried to use data-mining technology. After September 11th, the Pentagon sought ways to search data gathered about Americans, for patterns that might suggest links to terrorism. The program was called Total Information Awareness, or TIA for short. Congress found out about the initiative and shut it down.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld appointed a panel to study the use of data mining. Newton Minnow was its chairman. He is perhaps best known for heading the Federal Communications Commission when television was in its infancy. Newton Minnow says his committee tried to balance privacy rights, and the need to protect the nation.

Mr. NEWTON MINNOW (Former Chairman, Federal Communications Commission): We started with the premise that everybody in this country wants to use state of the art technology to catch terrorists, and to keep us safe. We pointed out in our report, that seven clicks of a computer mouse, believe it or not, could have tracked down the 19 hijackers and prevented them from boarding airplanes. So the technology is very powerful.

MONTAGNE: But wait, I'm going to break in there. Seven clicks of a mouse?

Mr. MINNOW: Seven clicks of a mouse. You see, two of the hijackers were known to our government agencies. We knew who they were. We knew their names. We knew their addresses. If we had communicated that information to other parts of the government, they would have checked to see if anybody with the same addresses, the same phone numbers, were flying the same day. And believe it or not, the seven clicks of a mouse, all 19 hijackers would have appeared within a matter of a couple of minutes.

So the technology is very powerful, and we've got to use it. The problem is, we've got to use it in way that's does not harm every ordinary American.

MONTAGNE: Let's go back to something that you focused on. One, it was in that report: the pitfalls and the dangers of the government's use of data mining. What were some of the specific concerns?

Mr. MINNOW: The specific concerns are that innocent people, who have done nothing wrong, will get caught up in this technology. A lot of people have the same names, there (Unintelligible) be errors in the records, a lot of innocent people get stopped from traveling, or false identities. It's very easy to make a lot of mistakes with this technology.

MONTAGNE: Now turn to the issue this past week. It is phone records that are being looked at. Where else can data be mined, besides phone company records?

Mr. MINNOW: Emails. Mail. There's all kinds of ways that tracing is possible.

MONTAGNE: Hmm.

Mr. MINNOW: Phone is only part of it.

MONTAGNE: Well, is there any way to do this, to mine data looking for patterns and behavior? And at the same time, protect privacy...

Mr. MINNOW: Yes...

MONTAGNE: ...in their formula?

Mr. MINNOW: Well, the first thing is that you're dealing with American citizens. We think it's essential that you go to court to get a warrant. And there's the FISA court is set up to do that. Second, we think that a very close supervision, by a privacy officer and by the Congress, is needed. This technology should be used. But it should be used in a way where there's no room for errors, and no room for getting into everybody's private life.

MONTAGNE: You wrote that report and sent it into Congress and the White House. What happened to it then?

Mr. MINNOW: Well, I'm afraid not too much. We had hearings. We listened to everybody. We had one hearing, actually, in the Congress, itself, in the Senate Hearing Room. Very few senators and congressmen participated. So I'm afraid our report - I wish people would dust off that report and listen to it now. Because if our government had, I don't we'd have the current problems.

MONTAGNE: Newton Minnow, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. MINNOW: Thank you. Bye-bye.

MONTAGNE: The report by Newton Minnow's advisory panel and a primer on the domestic spy controversy is at npr.org.

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