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Government data-mining: No boundaries?

ADVISE, a recently revealed U.S. government data-mining operation, raises questions about privacy and the meaning of public actions.

A program of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), called Analysis, Dissemination, Visualization, Insight, and Semantic Enhancement (ADVISE), aims to capture a massive volume of information about online activity to help government ferret out terrorists, according to a report by the Christian Science Monitor. Alledgedly, ADVISE has already helped foil some plots, but these stories are classified.

The story coins a cute word for data mining, As a classified project with no public oversight, ADVISE is a recipe for a privacy and civil rights disaster.calling it "dataveillance" that makes this sound like something new when it is as old as signals intelligence itself. So this raises very complicated issues of privacy, because the Internet carries both public and private communications. If the ADVISE program is grabbing email text and routing information based on users' email or IP addresses, this is a very dangerous invasion of privacy that is as unconstitutional as the NSA's domestic surveillance programs.

If the U.S. government is demanding and receiving confidential customer records from carriers, credit card processing companies, retailers and other organizations with whom customer interact with the expectation of privacy, it is a potentially disastrous economic decision, as it could crush people's confidence in those institutions when—it is only a matter of time—the data is misused.

But, here's the thing. ADVISE is benign, too, and may be a better approach to intelligence gathering, certainly it would be if it were subject to real public oversight.

Much of the conversation of the Web is taking place in public—it's published, a word derived from the Latin publicare, to make public. Blog postings, articles, comments in blogs, public listserv archives, the content of public forums such as Yahoo Groups, MySpace pages, all these are published acts that can where there should be no expectation of privacy. It's perfectly reasonable for the government to look at all this. If terrorists are using plaintext ciphers or steganography, the art of hiding data in text or data, why not try to figure it out? Go for it, within the laws that determine what agencies may participate in domestic and international surveillance activity.

ADVISE, however, is predicated on a great deal of secrecy, so we can't know if the privacy of network customers is being protected.
The analysis described probably combines public and private information, but we don't know. ADVISE likely uses private data, such as router logs picked out of carrier hardware.

Yet, the reliance on secrecy doesn't make sense, because the obvious  targets, such as blog and Web site content that might be used to convey messages, is assumed by everyone, terrorists and the public, to be accessible to analysis. 

If the government is combining that public data with illegally acquired data, it would not be useful for prosecutions, and therefore useless within a nation of laws.

Some may argue that ADVISE could be used to target terrorists for paramilitary attacks, but what if the government makes a mistake? There are no checks and balances in place to prevent abuse and with the potential for innocent people to be targeted by mistake the moral cost is too high. We—everyone on the side against the terrorists—must remain above their tactics, unwilling to accept the death of innocents.

If the government is defining our enemies based on its approval or disapproval for the ideas expressed on blogs and Web sites, then we're in grave danger—no government that has used this approach to ideas has been successful over the long term; they area all anti-democratic or become so.

So, the only sensible thing to do is to make ADVISE open and accessible to all, so that the public can discuss and debate what information is reasonable for the government to look at and what is off limits or placed back off limits. The essence of democracy is a rule of law, not of men who pass judgment on ideas. A system without public oversight leaves those decisions to too few people, leaving it highly prone to mistakes and abuse.

There may be some very powerful and good components of the ADVISE program, because much terrorist communication probably does take place in the open. As a classified project with no public oversight, ADVISE is a recipe for a privacy and civil rights disaster.