Last updated October 8, 2008 8:53 p.m.

Data mining didn't help find terrorists

Report calls for limits on investigators


A federal counterterrorism data-gathering effort was both ineffective and a threat to civil liberties, according to the findings of a National Research Council board that included Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske.

"We'd be foolish to stick our heads in the sand and ignore the bits and bytes that are out there," Kerlikowske said. But, he added, "just because we're investigating a crime doesn't give us carte blanche to mine data."

Prompted in part by a Department of Defense initiative called the Total/Terrorist Information Awareness Program, the 21-person committee examined federal efforts to find potential terrorists using surreptitiously obtained electronic information. Congress scrapped the program in 2003, largely because of civil liberties concerns.

The program represented the federal government's first large-scale foray into data mining, a catchall term for the collection and analysis of bank, telephone and other electronic records.

Program supporters hoped to use the information to identify suspects for law enforcement, and, according to press reports, passed thousands of bad leads onto the FBI.

Opponents of the program cheered the research council report, which found little value in the surveillance regime and that any future effort would require "robust, independent oversight," apparently previously lacking. The report was released Tuesday.

Kerlikowske said data mining shouldn't be dismissed entirely. But, he said, the technique should be considered only if it's shown to be effective and when clear rules are in place.

In the 352-page report titled "Protecting Individual Privacy in the Struggle Against Terrorists," the authors proposed oversight designed to limit unwarranted government intrusion through data mining.

"Even under the pressure of threats as serious as terrorism, the privacy rights and civil liberties that are the cherished core values of our nation must not be destroyed," the report's authors stated.

The surveillance efforts rushed into operation following the Sept. 11 attacks, the academies committee found, put those core values in jeopardy.

Restrictions, they found, should be placed on the use of the data, as well as the collection and assessment. Information collected under the auspices of counterterrorism shouldn't be passed along to the larger law enforcement community.

Barry Steinhardt, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's technology and liberty program, said the report is also a rebuke to those who suggest privacy must be sacrificed for public safety.

"It's a false choice -- there's no security to be had here, but there's a lot of liberty to be lost," Steinhardt said Wednesday.

"I hope it will be a warning signal to the next president that they are wasting time and resources in this kind of data mining."

Data mining efforts can create thousands of false suspects, but are ill-suited for finding terrorists, Steinhardt said. Terrorists don't fit a model and can't be identified simply by looking for a collection of bank transactions and travel information.

Moving forward, Kerlikowske said, a balance will need to be struck between privacy concerns and investigators' desires to use new technology.

The city of Seattle saw its constraints on police power tested following Sept. 11, when city leaders around the nation moved to weaken limits on police intelligence gathering created in the 1970s.

The rules, Kerlikowske said, bar police from monitoring political or religious organizations. Many cities, including New York, gutted the restrictions.

"After a good year's worth of discussion, we said no," he said. "Those restrictions are things we can actually live with."

P-I reporter Levi Pulkkinen can be reached at 206-448-8348 or