As federal agencies delve into the vast commercial market for consumer information, such as buying habits and financial records, they are tapping into data that would be difficult for the government to accumulate but that has become a booming business for private companies.
Industry executives, analysts and watchdog groups say the federal government has significantly increased what it spends to buy personal data from the private sector, along with the software to make sense of it, since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. They expect the sums to keep rising far into the future.
Privacy advocates say the practice exposes ordinary people to ever more scrutiny by authorities while skirting legal protections designed to limit the government’s collection and use of personal data.
Critics acknowledge that such data can be vital to law enforcement or intelligence investigations of specific targets but question the usefulness of “data-mining” software that combs huge amounts of information in the hopes of finding links and patterns that might pick someone out as suspicious.
[…] “This issue of using data to ferret out evildoers, many administration officials believe very firmly this is the way we should be going and that the barriers there should be overcome because it will result in a greater good,” said another former official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It’s a philosophy that if you have nothing to hide, why do you care if I know what movies you rent? Who you are talking to? If you live a godly life, a perfect life, you don’t have worry about 100 percent disclosure.”