By MATTHEW B. STANNARD
San Francisco Chronicle
May 12, 2006
The result: A piece of paper arrives in your mailbox offering you 10 percent off an oil change at your local service station.
That, in a nutshell, is data mining as practiced for more than a decade by companies around the world to target current and potential customers. The methods have changed since the old days of reverse telephone directories and mailing lists, but the basic objective is the same. And data mining of some type, experts agree, is almost certainly what is behind the National Security Agency's reportedly successful efforts to obtain the phone records of tens of millions of Americans from private telecommunications companies.
President Bush, commenting on the program - which administration officials says is aimed at identifying and tracking suspected terrorists - said that the government is not "mining or trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans." But security experts say the program virtually fits the dictionary definition of data mining - a technique for analyzing large sets of data that American intelligence agencies have long been developing. "The interest has been around for years and decades," said Richard Forno, Principal Consultant for KRvW Associates, a Washington security consultancy. "That's part of what NSA was chartered to do."
The fundamental use of data mining is to detect patterns - in shopping habits or the activities of the nation's enemies.
"Data mining is going through data from the past, historical data, and predicting what is likely to happen in the future based on patterns in the data," said Ken Bendix, president of North American operations at KXEN Inc., a company headquartered in San Francisco that develops data mining software for business applications.
It is used by credit card companies to spot spending patterns that suggest a card has been stolen and by marketing companies who use enormous databases to target advertising.
The technique has been gaining in popularity in the private sector thanks to advancements in computing technology and the mathematics underlying the software, Bendix said.
"The data is very rarely at the individual level," Bendix said. "When people are doing these data mining analyses, they don't care that you are you. They don't care what your name is or what your social security number is. All they care about is what group you fit into and how you relate to everybody else out there."
Government interest in data mining increased sharply after the Sept. 11 attacks. Unlike the private sector, intelligence officials began exploring ways to use the technique to identify and track individuals suspected of terrorist links. In 2002, the Department of Defense, through the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) launched the "Total Information Awareness" project - later changed to "Terrorism Information Awareness" (TIA) to counter the impression that the program would spy on U.S. citizens.
The goal of TIA, its now defunct Web site explained, was to link certain transactions - applications for passports, visas, work permits, driver's licenses, automotive rentals, airline ticket purchases, receipts for chemical purchases - to arrests or suspicious activities.
The program, the brainchild of President Ronald Reagan's national security adviser John Poindexter, collapsed under public and political criticism in 2003. But the idea lived on, said Forno, who lectured on information warfare at the National Defense University from 2001 to 2003 and participated in the 2000 White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Information Security Education Research Project.
"TIA may have died on paper," he said. "But it got parceled out to various other agencies, including the NSA."
The NSA's interest in what is essentially copies of tens of millions of old phone bills is not hard to understand, Forno and other analysts said.
In theory, a powerful computer could process all those numbers and find a link between a phone in, say, Iowa to a phone in an al Qaeda training camp on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border - even by way of dozens of other phones, linkages far too scattered for a human eye to notice. And the search wouldn't necessarily stop there.
"You have these phone numbers, you might also at a minimum run them against credit reporting companies," Forno said. "Local state DMV records. Tax records. Business employment records. All those other resources might help you narrow down your search."
But while the program's defenders insist it is a crucial instrument in the U.S. war on terror, some private security experts question its usefulness.
"We're looking for a needle in a haystack," said Bruce Schneier, a security technologist and chief technology officer of Counterpane Internet Security Inc. in Mountain View. "Dumping more hay on the pile doesn't necessarily get you anywhere."
Even before Sept. 11, Forno noted, the NSA intercepted information suggesting a terrorist attack was imminent - but failed to connect the dots in time. The New York Times reported in January that most of the leads generated by NSA surveillance of phone calls in the months after Sept. 11 led nowhere.
In addition, said Forno, with multiple government agencies now using data mining techniques, the temptation exists for them to use information gathered to fight terror for completely unrelated criminal investigations.
"I don't want to see that data mission creep," he said. "I think that is a very real potential problem."
Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com
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