Monday, January 16, 2006

Information Sharing

Today let's talk a little about Section 203, which is what I consider to be the heart of the Patriot Act. Basically, what Section 203 (b) and (d) attempts to do is to break down the wall separating criminal and intelligence investigations. The Justice Department has blamed this wall for the failure to capture and detail Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Midhar (9/11 hijackers). The CIA had information that both men were in the U.S., but the FBI reported that it did not get that information until August 2001.

Supporters of this provision say that it enhances information sharing within the FBI. Opponents say that the failure to share information resulted from incompetence and misunderstanding the law. Critics worry that unrestricted sharing of information could lead to massive databases full of personal information about innocent citizens.
For more on this, read this NPR article.

Section 203 (b) and (d) are subject to the sunset provision, which means they are set to expire and must be renewed by Congress in order to remain in effect. Section (b) and (d) differ in what they do. Section 203 (b) amends federal wiretap law. It allows law enforcement to disclose wiretap contents to other federal law enforcement, immigration, national defense, national security official to the extent that the information will assist with his or her duties.

Section 203 (d) contains more of a general authority for sharing information when it is obtained in criminal investigations. The information can be disclosed to the appropriate federal, state, local, or foreign government officials for the purpose of responding to a threat. Threat includes threat of attack, grave hostile acts, sabotage, terrorism, or clandestine intelligence activities.

This leads into some interesting areas for discussion. For example, is the problem really that we have to tear down barriers and share information? Or were the barriers not really there? How can we determine what information is useful to share and whom we should share it with? How do we sift through massive amounts of information to determine what is relevant and useful in a timely manner? If we share everything with everybody haven’t we obscured the very information we are seeking to tease out of massive amounts of data?

Then we have to ask where is this information stored? Are we warehousing information about innocent individuals in order to ferret out the bad? The warehousing of data is a reason for concern as there is plenty of evidence that people can’t protect databases.

The LA Times recently raised some questions in an opinion piece:

"First, what information, exactly, is being collected? Are other programs besides the president's NSA initiative ignoring traditional warrant requirements? Are federal agencies dodging weak privacy laws by outsourcing the job to private contractors?

Second, who has access to the data once it is collected, and what legal restrictions are set on how it can be used or shared?

Third, who authorized data mining, and is its use restricted to identifying terrorists?

Fourth, what is the collective effect of these programs on citizens' rights? Privacy certainly suffers, but as individuals begin to feel inhibited in what they say and do, free speech and freedom of assembly also erode.

Fifth, how do these data collection and mining operations deal with error? As anyone who's tried to dispute an erroneous credit report can attest, once computer networks exchange data, it may be difficult to verify its accuracy or where it entered the system. Citizens who do not know they are under surveillance cannot challenge inaccurate information that may become part of their secret digital dossier."

In an increasingly information rich society, what are the tools that can sift through, mine data and ultimately prevent terrorism? In this area, the Government could use the search expertise of librarians…well, maybe not now that they are deemed to be radical and militant. You can actually order a pin from ALA.

I've heard a lot of talk about disruptors lately. Seems like a slippery slope from radical and militant to diruptor. More on this disruptor information floating around blogs on a later post.


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