By MICHAEL J. SNIFFEN
The FBI wants to compile a massive computer database and analyze it for clues to unmask terrorist sleeper cells.
Two congressmen are worried about whether the bureau will protect the privacy of U.S. citizens.
Reps. Brad Miller, D-N.C., and James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., the chairman and ranking Republican on the House Science and Technology investigations subcommittee, asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate the proposal. Their June 4 letter to GAO was released Tuesday.
Miller and Sensenbrenner questioned both the FBI’s ability to properly manage such a large trove of data and whether predictive data-mining even works or just falsely casts suspicion on innocent people.
The FBI is seeking $12 million in the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 for its Foreign Terrorist Tracking Task Force to set up a National Security Branch Analysis Center, with 59 employees, including 23 contractors and five FBI agents.
Justice Department budget documents submitted to Congress predict the center will hold 6 billion records by 2012 and “the universe of subjects will expand exponentially.” That would equal “20 separate ‘records’ for each man, woman and child in the United States,” the congressmen wrote.
The center “will leverage existing data-mining tools to help identify relationships between individuals, locations and events that may be indicators of terrorist or other activities of interest,” the Justice documents said, and these efforts “will improve efforts to identify ‘sleeper cells.’”
Eleven workers in a Proactive Data Exploitation unit will be assigned to ferret out patterns of suspicious behavior in the data, the congressmen wrote.
They said the program resembles the Pentagon’s Total Information Awareness anti-terror data-mining research program. Congress ended TIA in 2003 out of privacy concerns, but much of its research was transferred to secret accounts in other agencies.
FBI spokesman Mike Kortan had no comment on the letter but pointed out that bureau policy requires that “we adhere to all established DOJ guidelines, FBI policy and the law” when data-mining.
Miller and Sensenbrenner quoted Jeff Jonas, a data-mining expert and IBM Distinguished Engineer, as saying “data-mining for terrorism discovery … would waste taxpayer dollars, needlessly infringe on privacy and civil liberties and misdirect the valuable time and energy of the men and women in the national security community.”
Jonas recently wrote that because there are so few known terrorist patterns of behavior, this kind of search would “flood the national security system with false positives _ suspects who are truly innocent.”
The two congressmen added that the FBI’s history suggests “the agency may have difficulty developing and operating” such a center. “The FBI has historically been unable to develop information systems in a reliable cost-effective and technically proficient manner,” they wrote.
_The FBI junked its Virtual Case File computerized records system in 2005 after spending $170 million without solving technical troubles. The replacement is reportedly running behind schedule.
_An FBI consultant was able to hack into classified bureau computers last year and access counterespionage and witness protection files and 38,000 FBI passwords, including Director Robert Mueller’s.
_In March, Justice’s inspector general found that FBI agents using National Security Letters “had demanded personal data without proper authorization, improperly obtained personal telephone records and banking records and underreported to Congress how often it used national security letters to obtain information on thousands of U.S. citizens.” The inspector general found 48 violations of law and estimated there were 3,000 violations between 2003 and 2005.
_The GAO found in 2005 that the Foreign Terrorist Tracking Task Force did not comply with all privacy and security laws and rules for handling sensitive information.
The congressmen asked the GAO to determine what records will be acquired, from which agencies or commercial entities, who will be granted access to them and under what restrictions. GAO also was asked to learn whether the center will contain records on U.S. citizens and what the bureau has done to guarantee those are accurate and protected from misuse and how they will be used.