Protecting Individual Privacy in the Struggle Against Terrorists

The National Research Council has published a new report finding that all U.S. agencies with counterterrorism programs that collect personal data should be required to evaluate the programs’ effectiveness, lawfulness, and impacts on privacy.

In its press release, they summarize that “Collecting and examining data to try to identify terrorists inevitably involves privacy violations, since even well-managed programs necessarily result in some “false positives” where innocent people are flagged as possible threats, and their personal information is examined.  A mix of policy and technical safeguards could minimize these intrusions, the report says.  Indeed, reducing the number of false positives also improves programs’ effectiveness by focusing attention and resources on genuine threats.”

The report, Protecting Individual Privacy in the Struggle Against Terrorists: A Framework for Program Assessment, is available from The National Acadamies Press in paperback or free online.

“All U.S. agencies with counterterrorism programs that collect or “mine” personal data — such as phone records or Web sites visited — should be required to evaluate the programs’ effectiveness, lawfulness, and impacts on privacy. A framework is offered that agencies can use to evaluate such information-based programs, both classified and unclassified. The book urges Congress to re-examine existing privacy law to assess how privacy can be protected in current and future programs and recommends that any individuals harmed by violations of privacy be given a meaningful form of redress. Two specific technologies are examined: data mining and behavioral surveillance. Regarding data mining, the book concludes that although these methods have been useful in the private sector for spotting consumer fraud, they are less helpful for counterterrorism because so little is known about what patterns indicate terrorist activity. Regarding behavioral surveillance in a counterterrorist context, the book concludes that although research and development on certain aspects of this topic are warranted, there is no scientific consensus on whether these techniques are ready for operational use at all in counterterrorism.”

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