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Friday, October 05, 2007


The ACLU is demanding that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) shut down the illegal Automated Targeting System (ATS) because it violates a congressional mandate barring DHS from assigning risk levels to innocent Americans, using personal data through data-mining techniques. The program was “approved without public or congressional consideration,” according to an ACLU release. And then a Newsweek article trumpets the fact that computer data-mining technology is replacing human intuition in deciding what you plan to buy, or just what book you will read next. All of this has been going on for years in both the private sector and federal agencies. I can account for over 20 years of tracking consumer whereabouts during my 35 years as a junk mail data broker and database consultant. We wanted to know everything about you and on a regular basis found new ways to dig up your private information and maneuver it through the system to track your daily habits. But the grind goes on and there was a distressing announcement in September by of a story by the New York Times that MySpace was outdoing Google in the collecting and using of your personal data. Blogger Preston Gralla says the NYT reports that MySpace will use 100 employees “to grab every piece of personal information it can about its users, and then use that to finely target ads.” This reeks of the old junk mail entrepreneurs who collected every morsel of your sensitive data, promptly deemed it their property, and then eventually sold it to the tune of what is today $4 billion annually. Gralla says of MySpace, “[Collecting] may be just the beginning. Will sales of that data be far behind?” Returning to government activity, the Washington Post had a good article in 2006 how the feds were “increasingly turning to data-mining.” First off, they go to the junk mail industry for consumer information; companies like ChoicePoint, Acxiom and LexisNexis. Other consumer database companies loaded with your private information are Experian, Equifax and TransUnion, all three of which are also credit bureaus. These six companies, themselves, engage in individual household data-mining at the highest levels, including neural network predictive modeling, also known as artificial intelligence. The NSA spying episode brought to light the government’s interest in your telephone activity, using databases provided by the private sector. WP states it is hard to pinpoint how many such data contracts exist, but points out 52 government agencies had launched or had plans for at least 199 data-mining projects as far back as 2004. Data-mining, or predictive modeling as some refer to it, was a blip on the horizon when I became involved some 20 years ago in junk mail. I’ve watched the technology develop over the years into something that, in the right hands, can be used as a surveillance tool that can tell you things about yourself even you don’t know. It’s done by combining personal data with sophisticated algorithms that analyze trends that can be used to make uncanny predictions. There was a great quote in the Federal Times by Tim Grance, manager of the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s computer security division: “Developing policy is easy,” he said. But, he added: “God and the devil both dwell in the implementation.” Think the Bush administration will ever figure this one out?

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