Newly Declassified Files Detail Massive FBI Data-Mining Project

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Newly Declassified Files Detail Massive FBI Data-Mining Project

Newly Declassified Files Detail Massive FBI Data-Mining Project 

Ryan Singel
Wed, 23 Sep 2009 02:10 EDT


A fast-growing FBI data-mining system billed as a tool for hunting terrorists is being used in hacker and domestic criminal investigations, and now contains tens of thousands of records from private corporate databases, including car-rental companies, large hotel chains and at least one national department store, declassified documents obtained by show.

Headquartered in Crystal City, Virginia, just outside Washington, the FBI's National Security Branch Analysis Center (NSAC) maintains a hodgepodge of data sets packed with more than 1.5 billion government and private-sector records about citizens and foreigners, the documents show, bringing the government closer than ever to implementing the "Total Information Awareness" system first dreamed up by the Pentagon in the days following the Sept. 11 attacks.

Such a system, if successful, would correlate data from scores of different sources to automatically identify terrorists and other threats before they could strike. The FBI is seeking to quadruple the known staff of the program.

But the proposal has long been criticized by privacy groups as ineffective and invasive. Critics say the new documents show that the government is proceeding with the plan in private, and without sufficient oversight.

"We have a situation where the government is spending fairly large sums of money to use an unproven technology that has a possibility of false positives that would subject innocent Americans to unnecessary scrutiny and impinge on their freedom," said Kurt Opsahl, a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "Before the NSAC expands its mission, there must be strict oversight from Congress and the public."

The FBI declined to comment on the program.

Among the data in its archive, the NSAC houses more than 55,000 entries on customers of the Cendant Hotel chain, now known as Wyndham Worldwide, which includes Ramada Inn, Days Inn, Super 8, Howard Johnson and Hawthorn Suites. The entries are for hotel customers whose names matched those on a long list the FBI provided to the company.

Another 730 records come from the rental car company Avis, which used to be owned by Cendant. Those records were derived from a one-time search of Avis's database against the State Department's old terrorist watch list. An additional 165 entries are credit card transaction histories from the Sears department store chain. Like much of the data used by NSAC, the records were likely retained at the conclusion of an investigation, and added to NSAC for future data mining.

It's unclear how the FBI got the records. In the past, companies have been known to voluntarily hand over customer data to government data-mining experiments - notably, in 2002, JetBlue secretly provided a Pentagon contractor with 5 million passenger itineraries, for which it later apologized. But the FBI also has broad authority to demand records under the Patriot Act, using so-called "national security letters" - a kind of self-issued subpoena that's led to repeated abuses being uncovered by the Justice Department's inspector general.

Wyndham Worldwide did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Sears declined comment.'s analysis of more than 800 pages of documents obtained under our Freedom of Information Act request show the FBI has been continuously expanding the NSAC system and its goals since 2004. By 2008, NSAC comprised 103 full-time employees and contractors, and the FBI was seeking budget approval for another 71 employees, plus more than $8 million for outside contractors to help analyze its growing pool of private and public data.

A long-term planning document from the same year shows the bureau ultimately wants to expand the center to 439 people.

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Re: Newly Declassified Files Detail Massive FBI Data-Mining ...

The news article makes it sound like this type of data mining is something relatively new.  Systems like Carnivore and Echelon have been around for quite some time.  These data mining systems are just getting increasingly sophisticated as computational capabilities progressively increase.  These systems are one of the reason why they'd like to put RFID chips in cash and why they hate gold.

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