The FBI has had to halt a data-mining project that overstepped even the generous boundaries of the PATRIOT Act. They were having telecoms suck in the records of people “once removed” from persons of interest. The trouble is, the old way of doing things was to start with a crime and some reason to think a person was involved. Now, mere association can make you a suspect in a crime that hasn’t happened.
As I read the Times coverage I kept mulling over the way that the Web has allowed communities to flourish, in a good way. We find out who likes reading the same kinds of books at Library Thing. We network with groups of friends we’ve only met online at Facebook. We let Google store our searches and read our mail so that we can trade that data for convenience – and so advertisers can find communities that might be interested in their products. No wonder the government wants in on the act.
And then I came to this section of the article:
Matt Blaze, a professor of computer and information science at the University of Pennsylvania and a former researcher for AT&T, said the telecommunications companies could have easily provided the F.B.I. with the type of network analysis data it was seeking because they themselves had developed it over many years, often using sophisticated software like a program called Analyst’s Notebook.
“This sort of analysis of calling patterns and who the communities of interests are is the sort of things telephone companies are doing anyway because it’s central to their businesses for marketing or optimizing the network or detecting fraud,” said Professor Blaze, who has worked with the F.B.I. on technology issues.
Such “analysis is extremely powerful and very revealing because you get these linkages between people that wouldn’t be otherwise clear, sometimes even more important than the content itself” of phone calls and e-mail messages, he said. “But it’s also very invasive. There’s always going to be a certain amount of noise,” with data collected on people who have no real links to suspicious activity, he said.
We’re going to have to make a choice. If we don’t put limits on what corporations can do as they track our phone calls and Internet usage and who we associate with, if we give away our private data without complaint, the constitutional limits that protect the individual from abuses of power will grow increasingly meaningless.