U.S. Data-Mining Spurs Investigations in Latin America

Article excerpt

While the value and efficiency of data-mining technology is widely acknowledged, there remains much skepticism about the technology and the privacy issues it may present. Using database exploration, data mining allows users to sort through masses of information, extract specific information in accordance with defined criteria, and then identify patterns.

In February, Congress cut off funding for Total Information Awareness, the Pentagon's controversial data-mining program, and in March an amendment to require congressional oversight of the Computer-Assisted Passenger Prescreening System being developed by the Transportation Security Administration passed the Senate Commerce Committee. More recently, the House Subcommittee on Technology examined the U.S. government's use of data-mining technology.

But for years, Americans who have been using credit cards or subscrib-ing to magazines have been leaving a financial identity trail catalogued by database companies and then resold to the U.S. government. Federal and state governments pay about $50 million annually to comb through the databases of one such company, ChoicePoint, which compiles and sells personal information on U.S. residents gathered from sources such as motor vehicle and credit records, car and boat registrations, liens and deed transfers, and military records. The company's computers are stocked with more than 100 terabytes of storage.

The files can be used by the FBI, U.S. Marshals Service, or Internal Revenue Service to check employee backgrounds, track fugitives, or piece together clues to a person's potential for terrorism. Privacy experts say the government's use of such commercial data circumvents the spirit of the Privacy Act of 1974, which prohibits routine data collection on ordinary Americans.

The U.S. government also has bought access to data on citizens of many other countries. According to the Electronic Privacy Information Center, in 2002, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (now part of the Homeland Security Department) paid $1 million for unlimited access to ChoicePoint's foreign databases.

Over the past two years, the U. …