1/01/1990

INTEL DUMP - -Data mining -- just when you thought it was dead...

Data mining -- just when you thought it was dead...
[Phillip Carter, Tuesday August 9, 2005 at 12:32pm EST]

By now, lots of people have noticed the story in today's New York Times by ace intel reporter Doug Jehl. In the article, Mr. Jehl reports that a secretive military intelligence unit dubbed "Able Danger" identified Mohammed Atta as early as summer 2000. However, legal considerations precluded the military from forwarding the information from its highly classified program to domestic law enforcement agencies like the FBI. According to the article:

In the summer of 2000, the military team, known as Able Danger, prepared a chart that included visa photographs of the four men and recommended to the military's Special Operations Command that the information be shared with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the congressman, Representative Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania, and the former intelligence official said Monday.

The recommendation was rejected and the information was not shared, they said, apparently at least in part because Mr. Atta, and the others were in the United States on valid entry visas. Under American law, United States citizens and green-card holders may not be singled out in intelligence-collection operations by the military or intelligence agencies. That protection does not extend to visa holders, but Mr. Weldon and the former intelligence official said it might have reinforced a sense of discomfort common before Sept. 11 about sharing intelligence information with a law enforcement agency.

Okay, so that's enough to make Page 1 of the New York Times. Big story, if it's true. My Slate colleague Eric Umansky is very skeptical in his "Today's Papers" column. Eric criticizes the story for relying heavily on a source with a shaky track record, another anonymous source, and very little corrboration. Still, I think the most interesting part of this story is buried several paragraphs below the lede:

The unit, which relied heavily on data-mining techniques, was modeled after those first established by Army intelligence at the Land Information Warfare Assessment Center, now known as the Information Dominance Center, at Fort Belvoir, Va., the official said.

Mr. Jehl gives this quote some additional context elsewhere in the story. Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) is a big supporter of "data mining", which is a generic term that is frequently used to describe the myriad techniques for using computers to sift through and analyze mountains of data. Apparently, in June of this year, Rep. Weldon mentioned the Able Danger program in a speech on the House floor, and in an interview with a hometown newspaper. The story then made it into a trade journal, and eventually into the New York Times.

If this is true -- and we have reasons to be skeptical -- I think this story is very significant for a number of reasons. First, it shows that the U.S. has been actively engaged with data-mining for some time, at least since 2000. Second, notwithstanding the spectacular death of Total Information Awareness some time ago, it appears likely that the U.S. continues to engage in data mining work — both R&D and operational work. Third, I think this story demonstrates the promise of data mining techniques, which fuse the disciplines of artificial intelligence, relational databases, and non-obvious relationship analysis (NORA).

Of course, pitfalls remain for the use of these systems. The U.S. must implement robust control measures to ensure systems like Able Danger don't evolve into an extra-Constitutional menace. Some of those control measures might include the use of ex ante and ex post judicial review for these programs; the appointment of a bipartisan commission to monitor these systems; and a procedural mechanism which would allow citizens to learn of the data held by the govenrment about them (similar to what exists now under FOIA, but better).

INTEL DUMP - -

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