- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Democrats and Republicans found one issue they can agree on during the first 100 hours of the new session — congressional oversight of government data mining, which both sides say is an unwarranted invasion into the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, held a hearing Wednesday morning on the privacy and security implications of nearly 200 data-mining programs used by more than 50 federal agencies.

Afterward, he and Sen. John E. Sununu, New Hampshire Republican, introduced legislation that administrations would report such programs and activities to Congress.

“Advances in technologies make data banks and data mining more powerful and more useful than at any other time in our history,” Mr. Leahy said. “These can be useful tools in our national security arsenal, but we should use them appropriately so that they can be most effective.”

Mr. Leahy warned that the potential for abuse requires oversight. “A mistake can cost Americans their jobs and wreak havoc in their lives and reputations that can take years to repair,” he said.

The data mining involves taking information collected by data brokers to detect patterns of behavior or track an individual. The data can include credit-card purchase details, airline-ticket and frequent-flier information, bank and medical records, even magazine subscriptions and phone information.

Data mining is often used to track those who default on student loans or launder money. Homeland Security Department officials hope to use the technology to screen airline passengers and at border crossings.

Mr. Sununu said data mining can be an essential tool to detect patterns that point to terrorist activity.

“However, it is imperative that we understand the impact of such technology on Americans’ personal privacy. In order to do this, Congress must be fully informed of the current data-mining technologies, new ones that are being developed, the effectiveness of those technologies, and the privacy protections in place,” Mr. Sununu said.

Sen. Russ Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill, said: “The possibility of unchecked, secret use of data-mining technology threatens one of the most important values that we are fighting for in the war against terrorism — freedom.”

Former Rep. Bob Barr, a Georgia Republican who recently became an activist for the Libertarian Party, told the panel that data mining poses a “serious threat” to the First, Second, Fourth and Fifth amendments to the Constitution.

“That is nearly half of the Bill of Rights,” he said.

“Adding insult to injury, there is no scientific proof that data mining to identify terrorists even works. No scientist has ever demonstrated that the government can predict who will commit an act of terror at some future time. Yet the government spends tens of billions of taxpayers’ dollars on data-mining programs each year — collecting, manipulating, retaining and disseminating the most personal and private information on unknowing American citizens and others,” Mr. Barr said.

James Jay Carafano, a senior research fellow with the Heritage Foundation, defended the practice of data mining but agreed oversight is needed.

“The federal government’s use of data-mining technology should be strictly limited to national security-related investigations,” Mr. Carafano said. “Congress should also require agencies to report on their intent to establish data-mining programs and require annual reports on their implementation, as well as their compliance with federal guidelines.”

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