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Mining data to nab terrorists: fair?

Digital minutiae could be used to track terror networks, but it could produce false positives.

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What can the United States government really glean from the phone-call histories - records of who called whom, when, and for how long - of millions of Americans?

After all, it's the same information that has long been available to authorities armed with a subpoena, though not sought en masse until after the 9/11 terror attacks. Its value, say computer experts and others, is that it can be used to identify a "social network" of interconnected people - including, perhaps, would-be terrorists.

"From phone records you can learn who are my friends - and who their friends are - what services I use, where I shop," says Johannes Gehrke, a computer scientist at Cornell University who has written search algorithms for government analysis programs. "Our social interactions leave a digital trail. [Phone-record analysis] is government learning about human behavior from analyzing that trail."

Moreover, they assert, phone records are just one part of a much larger government effort to analyze the digital minutiae of American life in the hope of uncovering terrorist networks buried within it. Potentially invasive, such counterterror activity aims to build databases that can be cross-referenced in the hope of matching patterns, relationships, and activities that bear investigating, experts say.

"You should presume that phone numbers are being collated with Internet records, credit-card records, everything," says Bruce Schneier, a security technologist with Counterpane Internet Security in Mountain View, Calif.

Cross-indexing phone records can reveal a social profile of friends and acquaintances and a geographic profile. Each individual in that chain might then be cross-indexed against his or her retail purchases, credit history, e-mail, medical records, airline reservations, Social Security number, fingerprints - anything that can be digitized and stored in databases, and assuming that the government has access to them. Such activity is potentially invasive, many experts acknowledge, but will it work?


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