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GAO Raises Privacy Concerns About Federal Data Mining

Forty percent of federal agencies are using data mining for a variety of activities, some of which raise significant privacy issues, a report finds.

Forty percent of federal agencies are using data mining for a variety of activities, some of which raise significant privacy issues, a report issued this week by the General Accounting Office finds. The report, "Data Mining: Federal Efforts Cover A Wide Range Of Uses," was requested by Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, in response to controversial uses of data mining by the Defense Department to combat terrorism.

The report finds 52 of 128 federal departments and agencies use or plan to use data mining. There are 131 data-mining efforts under way, with 68 planned. Of these 199, 122 use or will use personal information.

The top six purposes for data mining are improving service or performance (65), detecting fraud or abuse (24), analyzing scientific and research information (23), managing human resources (17), detecting criminal activities or patterns (15), and analyzing intelligence and detecting terrorist activities (14).

That anyone is surprised by this is in itself surprising. IT facilitated the creation, gathering, and storage of vast quantities of data, and sifting through it seems a logical step. With so much information available today, harnessing IT to sift the wheat from the chaff is the only possible response.

"What the systems are good for is being able to identity what appear to be either clusters of information or an uncommonly high incidence of co-occurrence," says Andrew Feit, senior VP of marketing at intellectual-capital-management company Verity Inc. The company's K2 Enterprise software is used by the Defense Intelligence Agency, among others, to identify terrorists.

Amar Gupta, co-director of the Profit Initiative at MIT's Sloan School of Management, says there's no doubt about the value of data mining. He points to instances where the technology has resulted in better mammogram reading and improved fraud detection.

But a statement from Akaka's office says Americans would be surprised how often government agencies share data about citizens.

Worries aren't merely hypothetical. While noting the value of the technology in the fight against terrorism, Gupta tells how data mining efforts following the 9/11 terrorist attacks led to the erroneous detaining of an MIT graduate student because, as his credit card revealed, he had been traveling too frequently between New York and Boston.

It is such issues that worry Akaka. "I am disturbed by the high number of data-mining activities in the federal government involving personal information," he said in a statement. "The federal government collects and uses Americans' personal information and shares it with other agencies to an astonishing degree, raising serious privacy concerns. I doubt if the American public realizes the extent to which the federal government collects and uses their personal information and the degree to which their information is shared with other agencies."

GAO plans a report next year of case studies of data mining in the federal government, plus options for oversight.

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