Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Is the U.S. Government's Mining of Commercial Data Contributing to an Erosion of Trust in Government?

Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Is the U.S. Government's Mining of Commercial Data Contributing to an Erosion of Trust in Government?

Article excerpt

I. Introduction

Several days after the September 11, 2001, attack on the U.S., Hank Asher, founder of a Florida-based commercial data broker company known as Seisint, ran a new data mining system through the company's 20-billion-record database. He came up with a list of names of 120,000 people the system had identified as having a "high terrorist factor." Those names were then reduced to a "1 percent list" of 1,200 people deemed to be the biggest threats. The names of five of the nineteen September 11 hijackers were on the list. When Asher demonstrated Seisint's system to officials from the FBI and other law enforcement agencies, they were greatly impressed. (1)

While this after-the-attack search of a commercial database raised some exciting possibilities in the minds of those interested in protecting public security, it also raised questions about the potential threat to civil liberties posed by government access to the billions of items of personal information held in commercial databases. Although some of the information, like names, street addresses, phone numbers, voter registration records, court records, marital records, and real estate records have been publicly available on paper for decades, recent advances in computer technology have made it economically feasible for data brokers to compile electronic dossiers on most of the people in the U.S. Moreover, through information collected through a host of consumer transactions, it is possible to combine a wide variety of non-public data with public records to provide a detailed account of someone's life. Non-public personal information can include e-mail addresses, financial information, travel history, employment history, subscriptions to publications and membership in organizations. The data can be linked with information about other people in the household. Although the credit reporting industry, dominated by Equifax, Experion and Trans Union, has been subject to privacy and other restrictions under the Fair Credit Reporting Act since 1970, the data broker industry, currently dominated by ChoicePoint, Acxiom and LexisNexis, is subject to far less regulation.

These developments raise some important questions about government's response to the threat of terrorism. What about the 1,195 people on Hank Asher's "1 percent list," branded as possessing a "high terrorist factor," who were not part of the September 11 attacks? Were they unfairly identified? Is a data mining system based on some of the known characteristics of the hijackers, including ethnicity, pilot training, age and gender, along with other factors including social security number anomalies, credit history and connection with "dirty" addresses and phone numbers, likely to be effective at identifying potential future terrorists? Do security concerns justify this type of data mining? Are civil liberties being threatened? Do the answers to these questions indicate that data mining is contributing to an erosion of trust in government?

Ii. Privacy, Ethics and Society

Privacy is a complex concept with many different definitions. It is characterized as a human right in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and has been enshrined as a fundamental right in European law. (2) It is connected with liberty and personal autonomy. Alan Westin, in his influential 1967 book, Privacy and Freedom, explains how privacy arises out of nature. (3) Privacy has also been analyzed from a harm-based approach. (4) For example, publication of an embarrassing photograph can injure one's sense of dignity, even when no economic or psychological harm can be demonstrated. Lack of privacy also can affect behavior. People understandably will feel more inhibited when they know they are being observed. While this can be beneficial in promoting order in a crowded public place, the uninvited scrutiny of others can put a damper on creative activities like art, musical composition, and scientific inquiry. …

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