Data mining for terrorists is an exercise in futility

Report, commissioned in part by the DHS, also warns of potential privacy problems

One of the most controversial programs was the Total Information Awareness (TIA) initiative that was quietly launched in 2002 by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency but then abandoned in 2003 after Congress stopped funding for it following a public outcry.

William Perry, co-chair of the NRC committee that wrote the new report, said in a prepared statement that technology should be used as needed to combat terrorism. "However, the threat does not justify government activities that violate the law, or fundamental changes in the level of privacy protection to which Americans are entitled," he added.

The NRC committee didn't look specifically at any counterterrorism-related data mining initiatives, nor did it conduct any direct evaluations of behavioral surveillance tools being used by agencies. Instead, the report is based on a generalized study of the effectiveness of such technologies in identifying potential terrorists.

What the report highlights are the severe limitations of automated data mining techniques for counterterrorism purposes and their potential privacy impacts, said committee member Fred Cate, who is the director of the Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research at Indiana University.

Automated data mining tools typically work by searching through mountains of data in large databases for unusual patterns of activity, which are then used to predict future behavior. The tools have proved to be useful for commercial applications such as detecting payment card fraud and predicting purchasing trends, Cate said.

"We can look at 50,000 people buying television sets and know that many of them are going to be buying a DVD at the same time," Cate said. But using the same techniques to try to identify a potential terrorist is futile because there simply isn't enough historical data upon which to base any predictions, he claimed, adding that there is little information available about patterns that could reliably point to terrorist activity.

On the consumer side, "you have millions of examples of the target data you want to emulate, so you know certain patterns look like fraud," Cate said. "With terrorists, we fortunately don't have too many examples."

Join the newsletter!

Or

Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags terrorismbusiness intelligence

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Jaikumar Vijayan

Computerworld (US)
Show Comments

Father’s Day Gift Guide

Brand Post

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Luke Hill

MSI GT75 TITAN

I need power and lots of it. As a Front End Web developer anything less just won’t cut it which is why the MSI GT75 is an outstanding laptop for me. It’s a sleek and futuristic looking, high quality, beast that has a touch of sci-fi flare about it.

Emily Tyson

MSI GE63 Raider

If you’re looking to invest in your next work horse laptop for work or home use, you can’t go wrong with the MSI GE63.

Laura Johnston

MSI GS65 Stealth Thin

If you can afford the price tag, it is well worth the money. It out performs any other laptop I have tried for gaming, and the transportable design and incredible display also make it ideal for work.

Andrew Teoh

Brother MFC-L9570CDW Multifunction Printer

Touch screen visibility and operation was great and easy to navigate. Each menu and sub-menu was in an understandable order and category

Louise Coady

Brother MFC-L9570CDW Multifunction Printer

The printer was convenient, produced clear and vibrant images and was very easy to use

Edwina Hargreaves

WD My Cloud Home

I would recommend this device for families and small businesses who want one safe place to store all their important digital content and a way to easily share it with friends, family, business partners, or customers.

Featured Content

Product Launch Showcase

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?