F.B.I. Data Mining Reached Beyond Initial Targets
The documents indicate that the Federal Bureau of Investigation used secret demands for records to obtain data not only on individuals it saw as targets but also details on their “community of interest” — the network of people that the target was in contact with. The bureau stopped the practice early this year in part because of broader questions raised about its aggressive use of the records demands, which are known as national security letters, officials said.
The community of interest data sought by the F.B.I. is central to a data-mining technique intelligence officials call link analysis. Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, American counterterrorism officials have turned more frequently to the technique, using communications patterns and other data to identify suspects who may not have any other known links to extremists.
The concept has strong government proponents who see it as a vital tool in predicting and preventing attacks, and it is also thought to have helped the National Security Agency identify targets for its domestic eavesdropping program. But privacy advocates, civil rights leaders and even some counterterrorism officials warn that link analysis can be misused to establish tenuous links to people who have no real connection to terrorism but may be drawn into an investigation nonetheless.
Here’s an even more distressing element, highlighting our incredible policy blind spot when it comes to privacy — this is only turning into a fight because we know we don’t want our government sifting through our communications, yet we apparently are completely sanguine about the fact that private concerns have been doing this kind of surveillance for years for the purposes of marketing:
Matt Blaze, a professor of computer and information science at the University of Pennsylvania and a former researcher for AT&T, said the telecommunications companies could have easily provided the F.B.I. with the type of network analysis data it was seeking because they themselves had developed it over many years, often using sophisticated software like a program called Analyst’s Notebook.
“This sort of analysis of calling patterns and who the communities of interests are is the sort of things telephone companies are doing anyway because it’s central to their businesses for marketing or optimizing the network or detecting fraud,” said Professor Blaze, who has worked with the F.B.I. on technology issues.
Such “analysis is extremely powerful and very revealing because you get these linkages between people that wouldn’t be otherwise clear, sometimes even more important than the content itself” of phone calls and e-mail messages, he said. “But it’s also very invasive. There’s always going to be a certain amount of noise,” with data collected on people who have no real links to suspicious activity, he said.
Another example: Are Those Commercials Working? Just Listen
Integrated Media Measurement, a start-up in San Mateo, Calif., wants to make advertising on broadcast media more efficient. Tom Zito, its C.E.O., boasts, “The simple way to think about us is that we’re doing for broadcast media what Google did for the Internet.”
[...] Integrated Media, also known as IMMI, uses existing technologies to do something new. It recruits teenagers as well as adults up to age 54 to carry a special cellphone at all times for two years. (In exchange, it pays all their cellphone costs.) The phone captures 10 seconds of audio from its surroundings every 30 seconds. Those samples are compressed into small digital files, called fingerprints, and uploaded to the company’s servers in California. There, the files are compared with samples of the media being measured, using a technology called acoustic matching.
Thus, IMMI can measure the number of participants who have heard an advertisement not only on television and radio, but also on digital video recorders, game players, cellphones, DVDs and CDs. The technology also works at films, concerts or sporting events.
That goes far beyond the measurements provided by Nielsen Media Research, which has long dominated the broadcast industries. [...]