Uncle Sam is drunk on data, pooh-poohing privacy

Newly leaked documents reveal how much data the government is gathering on innocent Americans. The answer: A lot

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After the DHS failed to keep the "underwear bomber" from boarding a plane at Detroit Airport three years ago, the White House decided to revise the rules to allow the NCTC to retain data on innocent Americans almost indefinitely and to mine that data for patterns. The new rules also allow the NCTC to share the its databases with any other agency, including foreign governments.

(In May of this year, some two months after the new guidelines were approved by the U.S. Department of Justice, we learned that Fruit of the Boom wearer Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was secretly working with the CIA, which is likely why the BVD bomb failed to detonate. Was this all concocted to make the White House give the spooks the latitude they were seeking all along? Insert your favorite conspiracy theories here.)

For their part, the spooks make the usual claims about "rigorous oversight" so that the data won't be abused. But who's watching the watchers? These days, each DHS agency has its own privacy officers -- a welcome change from previous administrations. But these officers still report to the agency heads, who are the ones pushing for this kind of big data analysis in the first place. Per the Journal:

At the Department of Justice, Chief Privacy Officer Nancy Libin raised concerns about whether the guidelines could unfairly target innocent people, these people said. Some research suggests that, statistically speaking, there are too few terror attacks for predictive patterns to emerge. The risk, then, is that innocent behavior gets misunderstood -- say, a man buying chemicals (for a child's science fair) and a timer (for the sprinkler) sets off false alarms.

Which is exactly the problem with these kind of rules: False positives could have disastrous consequences for innocent Americans. But other privacy officers were hesitant to criticize the new rules, for fear of setting off a "firestorm" within their agencies. Two privacy officers who raised objections to the new guidelines both left their government jobs shortly thereafter.

And now we're all being watched. Conduct yourselves accordingly.

Is Uncle Sam turning into Big Brother? Share your thoughts below or send me a clandestine email: cringe@infoworld.com.

This article, "Uncle Sam is drunk on data, pooh-poohing privacy," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter.

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