Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Protect us, but don't look at us

The New York Times reports that a military intelligence unit had identified four of the 9/11 attackers, including Mohammed Atta, as likely members of an Al Qaida cell, more that a year before the attacks:

Mr. Weldon has long been a champion of the kind of data-mining analysis that was the basis for the work of the Able Danger team.

The former intelligence official spoke on the condition of anonymity, saying he did not want to jeopardize political support and the possible financing for future data-mining operations by speaking publicly. He said the team had been established by the Special Operations Command in 1999, under a classified directive issued by Gen. Hugh Shelton, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to assemble information about Al Qaeda networks around the world.

Mickey Kaus, in his Kausfiles blog on Slate, sees this as vindication for the utility of mining publicly available data in a search for terrorists. He cites Heather Mac Donald's excellent piece last year in City Journal:
It’s okay for Home Depot to buy my digitized credit-card receipts, says the privacy "community," to see whether I would be a soft touch for a riding mower. But if government agents want to see who has purchased explosive-level quantities of fertilizer, they should go store to store, checking credit-card receipts. Data-mining opponents would deny terror investigators a technology in common use in the commercial sector, simply because they think government should be kept inefficient to limit its power, a Luddite's approach to public policy. Remember: data mining would only speed government access to records to which it is already legally entitled. When a technology offers possibly huge public benefits, the rational answer to the fear of its abuse is to use technology to build in safeguards.
Kaus concludes:

It's been obvious for a while that we're going to match the terrorists in the cyberspace race we'll have to give up some of our privacy. Letting a government supercomputer scan my credit card receipts and Amazon searches seems a relatively inoffensive place to start.** It beats torturing people. ...

** Don't forget my library books! (Do you have an expectation of privacy when you check out a book from ... the government? I don't.)

It's nice to see Mickey Kaus continue to uphold the banner of common sense at Slate, undoubtedly a lonely and thankless task. Restrictions on manipulating publicly available data when pursuing terrorists is just plain barmy.
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