Democratic senators want agency data-mining reports

Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., says more than 50 agencies are using data-mining technology.

The government's mining of information from public- and private-sector databases for clues to terrorism and crime is widespread and federal agencies should regularly report to Congress on such activities, lawmakers said Wednesday.

"The overwhelming majority of these data-mining programs use, collect, and analyze personal information about ordinary American citizens," Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said during a hearing on balancing privacy and security. "We need look no further than the government's own terrorist watch list, which now contains the names of more than 300,000 individuals -- including infants, nuns and even members of Congress-- to understand the inefficiencies that can result from data mining and government dragnets."

Leahy said that "at least 52 different federal agencies are currently using data-mining technology," adding that there are "at least 199 different government data-mining programs operating or planned throughout the federal government." Despite its widespread use, Leahy said questions remain about how effective data mining is in preventing terrorism.

Leahy and Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., touted a planned bill that would require agency reports to Congress on their data-mining activities. Feingold said he hopes the hearing will be the first step in "perhaps regulating this type of technology."

Former Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia said there never has been a comprehensive examination of who owns the data. Barr, who now heads a civil liberties coalition called Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances, said in a written statement that the Bush administration's data mining programs violate the Constitution and federal laws in several ways.

Barr recently switched his affiliation from Republican to the Libertarian Party in part because of his concerns over the GOP's actions on civil liberties and privacy issues.

"Predictive data mining is appropriate for seeking credit card fraud" and sending cops to a certain part of town, Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the Cato Institute, said in testimony. However, "because of the near statistical impossibility of catching terrorists through data mining, and because of its high costs in investigator time, taxpayer dollars, lost privacy and threatened liberty, I conclude that data mining does not work in the area of terrorism."

Harper called for greater transparency of the practice.

Leslie Harris, executive director for the Center for Democracy and Technology, said in testimony that "technology has far outstripped existing privacy protections at the very time that legal standards for government access to data have been lowered."

Meanwhile, James Carafano, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, argued that traditional law enforcement models need to be modified. He said the threat of terrorism requires law enforcement to be preventive rather than reactive.

Carafano proposed rules to guide U.S. implementation of basic principles for fighting a long-term war in the electronic world. He said the development of technology should not justify authorizing new government powers.

He also said citizen representatives should authorize new, tamper-proof systems.