Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Collecting Data To Keep You Safe?

Isn't it a comfort to know that the government is making provisions to collect vast amounts of data on everyone so that you can be safe from terrorists and criminals? Maybe yes, maybe no. It depends what kind of data they are collecting, and about whom.

The Washington Post put out this article: "National Dragnet Is a Click Away Authorities to Gain Fast and Expansive Access to Records" By Robert O'Harrow Jr. and Ellen Nakashima, Thursday, March 6, 2008; A01

It talks about the "ginormous" domestic intelligence system that is being built through police agencies across the country which will pour millions of criminal and investigative records into shared digital repositories called data warehouses, giving investigators and analysts new power to discern links among people, patterns of behavior and other hidden clues.

Those data infrastructures will be expanded even more as some local and state agencies connect to a fledgling Justice Department system called the National Data Exchange, or N-DEx.
Federal authorities hope N-DEx will become what one called a "one-stop shop" enabling federal law enforcement, counterterrorism and intelligence analysts to automatically examine the enormous caches of local and state records for the first time.
There is also a huge commercial data-mining system called Coplink which is also used by law enforcement agencies.
With Coplink, police investigators can pinpoint suspects by searching on scraps of information such as nicknames, height, weight, color of hair and the placement of a tattoo. They can find hidden relationships among suspects and instantly map links among people, places and events. Searches that might have taken weeks or months -- or which might not have been attempted, because of the amount of paper and analysis involved -- are now done in seconds.
For example one could use Coplink to search for clues about a fraud suspect by entering the name of a suspect used on a bogus check. A second later, a list of real names comes up, along with five incident reports. Shared data between police departments can yield data to find a suspect's links to other people and incidents, and then to create a visual chart displaying the findings.

This is called intelligence-led policing. Data surveillance is a technology being used to fight crime and terrorism but how does it square with laws intended to check government power and protect civil liberties?
Three decades ago, Congress imposed limits on domestic intelligence activity after revelations that the FBI, Army, local police and others had misused their authority for years to build troves of personal dossiers and monitor political activists and other law-abiding Americans.

Since those reforms, police and federal authorities have observed a wall between law enforcement information-gathering, relating to crimes and prosecutions, and more open-ended intelligence that relates to national security and counterterrorism. That wall is fast eroding following the passage of laws expanding surveillance authorities, the push for information-sharing networks, and the expectation that local and state police will play larger roles as national security sentinels.

Law enforcement and federal security authorities said these developments, along with a new willingness by police to share information, hold out the promise of fulfilling post-Sept. 11, 2001, mandates to connect the dots and root out signs of threats before attacks can occur.

"A guy that's got a flat tire outside a nuclear facility in one location means nothing," said Thomas E. Bush III, the FBI's assistant director of the criminal justice information services division. "Run the guy and he's had a flat tire outside of five nuclear facilities and you have a clue."
.....Or maybe that guy just has really bad luck? The problem arises that connections could be made where there may be none.

At least 1,550 jurisdictions across the country use Coplink systems and at least 400 other agencies are sharing information and doing link analysis through the Law Enforcement Information Exchange, or Linx (a Navy Criminal Investigative Service project built by Northrop Grumman using commercial technology). Hundreds of other police agencies across the country are using many different information-sharing systems with varying capabilities. So it really is a mixed bag of systems. The government wants to make things more shareable and standardized.

So far, the systems that have been initiated by Homeland Security have had a multitude of problems from cost overruns, poor planning and ambivalence on the part of local and state authorities, according to the Government Accountability Office.
Almost every state has established organizations known as intelligence fusion centers to collect, analyze and share information about possible leads. But many of those centers are underfunded and undermanned, and some of the analysts are not properly trained, the GAO said last year......

Federal authorities have high hopes for the N-DEx system, which is to begin phasing in as early as this month. They envision a time when N-DEx, developed by Raytheon for $85 million, will enable 200,000 state and local investigators, as well as federal counterterrorism investigators, to search across millions of police reports, in some 15,000 state and local agencies, with a few clicks of a computer mouse. Those reports will include names of suspects, associates, victims, persons of interest, witnesses and any other person named in an incident, arrest, booking, parole or probation report.
So remember.... don't be associated with anyone who might be a suspect, because chances are you'll end up in the report the computer spits out. Personally I wonder about the security of the data they are collecting. We've all heard stories about data being stolen or hacked or sold or misused, and well, we ARE dealing with the government here. They aren't always that careful or efficient about doing things.
Authorities are aware that all of this is unsettling to people worried about privacy and civil liberties. Mark D. Rasch, a former federal prosecutor who is now a security consultant for FTI Consulting, said that the mining of police information by intelligence agencies could lead to improper targeting of U.S. citizens even when they've done nothing wrong.

Some officials avoid using the term intelligence because of those sensitivities. Others are open about their aim to use information and technology in new ways.....

To allay the public's fears, many police agencies segregate information collected in the process of enforcing the law from intelligence gathered on gangs, drug dealers and the like. Projects receiving federal funding must do so.

Nearly every state and local jurisdiction has its own guides for these new systems, rules that include restrictions intended to protect against police intrusiveness, authorities said. The systems also automatically keep track of how police use them.

N-DEx, too, will have restrictions aimed at preventing the abuse of the data it gathers. FBI officials said that agencies seeking access to N-DEx would be vetted, and that only authorized individuals would have access. Audit trails on whoever touches a piece of data would be kept. And no investigator would be allowed to take action -- make an arrest, for instance -- based on another agency's data without first checking with that agency.

But even some advocates of information-sharing technology worry that without proper oversight and enforceable restrictions the new networks pose a threat to basic American values by giving police too much power over information. Timothy Sample, a former intelligence official who runs the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, is among those who think computerized information-sharing is critical to national security but fraught with risks.

"As a nation, our laws have not kept up," said Sample, whose group serves as a professional association of intelligence officials in the government and intelligence contracting executives in the private sector.

Thomas McNamara, chief of the federal Information Sharing Environment office, said a top goal of federal officials is persuading regional systems to adopt most of the federal rules, both for privacy and to build a sense of confidence among law enforcement authorities who might be reluctant to share widely because of security concerns.

"Part of the challenge is to leverage these cutting-edge tools so we can securely and appropriately share that information which supports efforts to protect our communities from future terrorist attacks," McNamara said. "Equally important is that we do so in a manner that fully protects the information privacy and legal rights of all Americans."
So how much data collection is enough for them to adequately do their job of finding and apprehending criminals and terrorists? and how many times will the data analysis yield false assumptions? Personally, I don't like the idea of the government tracking everyone's information. Will keeping track of nicknames, height, weight, color of hair and the placement of a tattoo really stop someone from doing a crime? It all sounds so "Minority Report-esque"

You might want to think twice before you buy your next bag of lawn fertilizer.
And while the government is peeking in on your bank account - maybe they'll throw a few bucks in for good measure... (not likely)