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Friday, January 13, 2006

This Administration Could Use Some Artificial Intelligence

I’ve stayed out of the Bush spy scandal because it didn’t really relate to what this blog is all about: your right to control your name and personal data. That is, until I read the latest article in the January 9 issue of Newsweek: “Full Speed Ahead” by Evan Thomas and Daniel Klaidman.

Tucked away on page 26 of the magazine piece was a reference to a secret project the National Security Agency is working on that involves data mining. In lay persons’ terms that means looking at all the data available—your name and personal information—and finding a pattern to how you conduct your everyday life. Of course, the exclaimed purpose in doing this is to catch the “bad guys.” Apparently, even if it snares the “good guys.”

According to New York Times reporter, James Risen, NSA was spying on 500 people in the U.S. each day for up to four years. Folks, that’s 730,000 individuals, and, this is overkill in anyone’s language. You can read Risen’s interview with NBC’s Andrea Mitchell: “Reporter defends release of NSA spy program.”

And then on Nightline January 10, a twenty-year employee of the NSA, Russell Tice, says the eavesdropping could include millions of Americans, if the agency used the full range of their technology. He goes on to indicate that the surveillance would occur if you placed any overseas communication.

I can shed more light on the sophisticated data mining techniques employed by government and business—sometimes called artificial intelligence, or neural networks—because I did this for twenty years in the junk mail industry. Data brokers like ChoicePoint and LexisNexis are the veterans of data mining and much of what the National Security Agency uses was probably developed by business. So exactly what happens to your name and private information when someone wants to pry into your affairs?

The data may be assembled from several locations, including data brokers, but the data mining—sometimes referred to as predictive modeling—will be done in one location where all the work is conducted by one or more individuals. Once the modeler collects the names and personal data on the profile of individuals to be analyzed, it is fed into the data mining software. Although this is somewhat oversimplified, the technician then “hits the button” that unleashes a technology that is just short of the human brain in its ability to reason; thus, the term “artificial intelligence.”

The scenario goes something like this. Borrowing again from the Russell Tice, Nightline interview, if you mentioned the word “jihad” in any of your overseas telephone or e-mail conversations, your name and private information would be set aside for close scrutiny. Based on what the data brokers know about you—and that is voluminous—the NSA can track almost every movement of your day.

Start with what time you get up in the morning, because they know your occupation, where you work, where you live, and how long it takes you to get to work. They know if you exercise, how many kids you get ready for school, including their ages, and if you have a pet to feed. They have your make and model of car, the balance due, and where it is financed.

Your bank account records can be searched for large deposits, or your mortgage looked at for any unusual activity. Credit card charges reveal just about anything you have done, or any place you have traveled, eaten, or attended for entertainment. If you are a frequent traveler or take cruises, they know where you go and for how long you are gone. If you invest in a suspicious stock or contribute to a charity on NSA’s list, that will be noted.

There are records of your drinking, gambling and smoking habits, and what your political preferences are. It is known if you are a veteran, whether you own a gun or a camera, what music you like, what food you eat, and which magazines and books you read. Any ailments you have are documented, and as many as 150 medications you might be taking.

There’s more, and I will cover this in my next post. The focus will be on the ability of the junk mail list industry to target certain ethnic groups, and how this personal data can be accessed by the FBI, thanks to Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act. It is one of the provisions recently fought over passionately in Congress.

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