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Information Please

Only a paranoid solipsist could feel threatened by the calling analysis program.

May 22, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 34 • By HEATHER MAC DONALD
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The Washington Post calls this numbers analysis the "most extensive . . . domestic surveillance [program] yet known involving ordinary citizens and residents." Bunk. The NSA's data mining program is not surveillance; no one is being listened to or observed.

Data mining looks for mathematical patterns in computerized information; it is not a real-time spying operation. The government didn't need to go to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for a wiretap or pen register order (which governs the collection of phone numbers in real time from a single phone) because it is not listening to or recording any individual's calls. FISA is built around the notion of an individualized investigation of specific spies or terrorists; it is seriously outdated for the application of American computer know-how to ferret out terror plots before they happen and before the government has individual suspects in mind.

But it may be too late to convey these truths. The time to explain how data mining protects privacy while providing a crucial tool against unknown mass-murderers was while the Pentagon's Total Information Awareness program was under attack. That program, which hoped to uncover patterns of terrorist activity in publicly available commercial data, was merely in its preliminary research stages, but the Senate killed it in a demagogic display of privacy hysteria.

Having lost that battle without fighting, the administration has gone silent on the value of data mining, presumably terrified of another privacy fiasco. After the revelation last December of another large-scale NSA program analyzing international calls to terror suspects, the administration denied that data mining was involved. It also implied that domestic phone traffic was off-limits. And now, President Bush defends this latest program in the most anodyne of terms, asserting baldly that the "privacy of ordinary Americans is fiercely protected in all our activities." His credibility, after the previous denials of data mining and failure to clarify its character, is, to say the least, weak.

Cooperation between the private sector and intelligence agencies is crucial for uncovering terrorist plots. After 9/11, JetBlue Airways and Northwest Airlines offered privacy-protected passenger records to NASA and the Pentagon for research to see if data-mining could aid in identifying terrorist flight behavior. No passenger's privacy was violated, yet these two companies now face hundreds of billions of dollars in privacy lawsuits. The class action bar is undoubtedly gearing up for a similar assault on ATT, Verizon, and BellSouth, an abuse of tort law that will further discourage patriotic corporate behavior.

The American public is adult enough, one hopes, to cope with the idea of a government computer analyzing commercial and communications data as a protection against terrorism. If only someone would trust them with the facts.

--Heather Mac Donald, for the Editors