Privacy and Connecting-the-Dots
July 16, 2008
The seeds of my current company, Enterra Solutions, can be traced back to the days following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. As a serial entrepreneur, I was between companies and looking for my next project. My sister, who was working in the now-condemned Deutsche Bank building which sat next to the World Trade Center towers, had definitely been in harm’s way and I was motivated to do something to help. As the details of those tragic events emerged, it was clear that the intelligence community needed a better way to share information and I thought I could help them find it. The short story is those events catalyzed my thinking about rule set automation and how it could be used to make processes of all kinds (including information sharing) more efficient and effective. Sharing information (i.e., making sure the right person, with the right clearance, and a need to know gets the right data) is a very difficult challenge. Sources need protecting and privacy issues abound. It is the tension between the benefits of sharing information and the privacy concerns that it raises that is the focus of a recent article in the Washington Post [“Post-9/11 Dragnet Turns Up Surprises,” by Ellen Nakashima, 6 July 2008]. Nakashima writes:
“In the six-and-a-half years that the U.S. government has been fingerprinting insurgents, detainees and ordinary people in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Horn of Africa, hundreds have turned out to share an unexpected background, FBI and military officials said. They have criminal arrest records in the United States. There was the suspected militant fleeing Somalia who had been arrested on a drug charge in New Jersey. And the man stopped at a checkpoint in Tikrit who claimed to be a dirt farmer but had 11 felony charges in the United States, including assault with a deadly weapon. The records suggest that potential enemies abroad know a great deal about the United States because many of them have lived here, officials said. The matches also reflect the power of sharing data across agencies and even countries, data that links an identity to a distinguishing human characteristic such as a fingerprint.”
I have repeatedly, in my posts, trumpeted the power of connectivity — not just for law enforcement purposes but for commercial activity as well. Although there are privacy concerns about information sharing in the commercial sector, they pale in comparison to the concerns raised in the security sector. Anyone whose name is on a terrorist watch list knows that life suddenly becomes more complicated and irritating. People don’t really mind making life difficult for a person who is an actual security risk, but when an innocent person is affected we all feel his or her pain. We get outraged when they find themselves caught in a Catch 22 situation where everybody sympathizes but nobody does anything about it. Nakashima reports that warning flags have been raised anew by privacy advocates as a result of a recent directive issued by President Bush.
“The fingerprinting of detainees overseas began as ad-hoc FBI and U.S. military efforts shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. It has since grown into a government-wide push to build the world’s largest database of known or suspected terrorist fingerprints. The effort is being boosted by a presidential directive signed June 5, which gave the U.S. attorney general and other cabinet officials 90 days to come up with a plan to expand the use of biometrics by, among other things, recommending categories of people to be screened beyond ‘known or suspected’ terrorists.”
Privacy advocates are not just concerned that the program is expanding in the United States, their concerns include the fact that databases are being shared globally.
“Fingerprints are being beamed in via satellite from places as far-flung as the jungles of Zamboanga in the southern Philippines; Bogota, Colombia; Iraq; and Afghanistan. Other allies, such as Sweden, have contributed prints. The database can be queried by U.S. government agencies and by other countries through Interpol, the international police agency. Civil libertarians have raised concerns about whether people on the watch lists have been appropriately determined to be terrorists, a process that senior government officials acknowledge is an art, not a science. Large-scale identity systems ‘can raise serious privacy concerns, if not singly, then jointly and severally,’ said a 2007 study by the Defense Science Board Task Force on Defense Biometrics. The ability ‘to cross reference and draw new, previously unimagined, inferences,’ is a boon for the government and the bane of privacy advocates, it said.”
People are always wary about “big brother.” That is why the Defense Science Board Task Force claim that information sharing is “a boon for the government” touches a nerve that sends shivers up the spine of privacy advocates. Proponents of sharing biometric information undoubtedly have a different perspective and use different language. They would argue that sharing biometric information is a boon for the traveling public and helps make people safer. Both sides have valid points. Nakashima’s focus is on the benefits of such information sharing. She continues:
“The effort, officials say, is bearing fruit. ‘The bottom line is we’re locking people up,’ said Thomas E. Bush III, FBI assistant director of the Criminal Justice Information Services division. ‘Stopping people coming into this country. Identifying IED-makers in a way never done before. That’s the beauty of this whole data-sharing effort. We’re pushing our borders back.'”
The U.S. military has always stressed “defense in depth,” by which it means defending the country as far away from its shores as possible. Law enforcement agencies have come to appreciate this approach. Nakashima reports that the current effort to collect fingerprints of possible terrorists began shortly after 9/11.
“In December 2001, an FBI team was sent on an unusual mission to Afghanistan. The U.S. military had launched a wave of airstrikes aimed at killing or capturing al Qaeda fighters and their Taliban hosts. The FBI team was to fingerprint and interview foreign fighters as if they were being booked at a police station. The team, led by Paul Shannon, a veteran FBI agent embedded with U.S. special forces, traveled to the combat zone toting briefcases outfitted with printer’s ink, hand rollers and paper cards. The agents worked in Kandahar and Kabul. They traversed the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. They hand-carried the fingerprint records from Afghanistan to Clarksburg, W.Va., home to the FBI’s criminal biometric database. As they analyzed the results, they were surprised to learn that one out of every 100 detainees was already in the FBI’s database for arrests. Many arrests were for drunken driving, passing bad checks and traffic violations, FBI officials said.”
Although that description of offenses would lead one to believe that the offenders were not very religious (e.g., Islam teaches that people are supposed to be honest and aren’t supposed to drink alcohol), the FBI learned they were very committed to their cause.
“The people being fingerprinted had come from the Middle East, North Africa and Pakistan. They were mostly in their 20s, Shannon recalled. ‘One of the things we learned is we were dealing with relatively young guys who were very committed and what they would openly tell you is that when they got out they were going back to jihad,’ he said. ‘They’d already made this commitment.'”
Nakashima provides other anecdotal evidence of the success of the fingerprinting program.
“One of the first men
fingerprinted by the FBI team was a fighter who claimed he was in Afghanistan to learn the ancient art of falconry. But a fingerprint check showed that in August 2001 he had been turned away from Orlando International Airport by an immigration official who thought he might overstay his visa. Mohamed al Kahtani would later be named by the Sept. 11 Commission as someone who allegedly had sought to participate in hijackings. He currently is in custody at Guantanamo Bay. Similarly, in 2004, an FBI team choppered to a remote desert camp on the Iraq-Iran border, home to the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), whose aim is to overthrow the Iranian government. The MEK lead an austere lifestyle in which men are segregated from women and material goods are renounced. The U.S. State Department considers the organization to be a terrorist group. The FBI team fingerprinted 3,800 fighters. More than 40, Shannon said, had previous criminal records in the agency’s database.”
The FBI is not the only organization collecting biometric data. Nakashima reports that the U.S. military also a program.
“While the FBI was busy collecting fingerprints, the military was setting up its own biometrics database, adding in iris and facial data as well. By October, the two organizations agreed to collaborate, running queries through both systems. The very first match was on the man who claimed to be a poor dirt farmer. Among his many charges were misdemeanors for theft and public drunkenness in Chicago and Utah, a criminal record that ran from 1993 to 2001, said Herb Richardson, who serves as operations manager for the military’s Automated Biometric Identification System under a contract with Ideal Innovations of Arlington. Many of those with U.S. arrest records had come to the United States to study, said former Criminal Justice Information Services head Michael Kirkpatrick, who led the FBI effort to use biometrics in counterterrorism after Sept. 11. ‘It suggests there was some familiarity with Western culture, the United States specifically, and for whatever reason they did not agree with that culture,’ he said. ‘Either they became disaffected or put up with it, and then they went overseas.'”
Nakashima also provides anecdotal evidence about why civil libertarians are concerned with such programs.
“Errors in matching, though rare, have occurred. In a noted 2004 case, Oregon lawyer Brandon Mayfield was erroneously named as a suspect in the Madrid train bombings that killed 191 people. FBI lab analysts matched a print lifted from a plastic bag at the crime scene to his fingerprints that were stored in the FBI’s criminal database because of a 1985 arrest for auto burglary when he was a teenager. The charge had been dismissed. After a critical Justice Department Inspector General audit, the FBI made fixes in its system. A recent inspector general report found the FBI fingerprint matching to be generally accurate. Civil libertarians, however, worry that the systems are not transparent enough for outsiders to tell how the government decides who belongs on a watch list and how that information is handled. ‘The day when the federal government can tell people the basis they’ve been put on the watch list is the day we can have more confidence in biometric identification,’ said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.”
Nakashima goes on to report why watch lists are so problematic.
“Vetting the data is the job of analysts at the National Counterterrorism Center, an office park-like complex in McLean run by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Analysts there scour intelligence reports to create the master international terrorist watch list. ‘You cannot draw a bright red line and say that’s a terrorist, this person isn’t,’ said Russ Travers, an NCTC deputy director. ‘If somebody swears allegiance to Bin Laden, that’s an easy case. If somebody goes to a terrorist training camp, that’s probably an easy case. What if a person goes to a camp and decides, “I don’t want to go to a camp, I want to go home.” Where do you draw the line?’ Investigators are working on ever more sophisticated ways to evaluate the data. Analysts at the Army’s National Ground Intelligence Center in Charlottesville, for instance, use software to scrutinize intelligence reports from sources such as electronic surveillance and informants. They then link the information to a person’s biographic and biometric data, and look for relationships that might detect terrorists and plots. For example, a roadside bomb may explode and a patrol may fingerprint bystanders because insurgents have been known to remain at the scene to observe the results of their work. Prints also can be lifted off tiny fragments of exploded bombs, said military officials and contractors involved in the work. Analysts are not just trying to identify the prints on the bomb. They want to find out who the bomb-carrier associates with. Who he calls. Who calls him. That could lead to the higher-level operatives who planned and financed attacks. Already, fingerprints lifted off a bomb fragment have been linked to people trying to enter the United States, they said. In a separate data-sharing program, 365 Iraqis who have applied to the Department of Homeland Security for refugee status have been denied because their fingerprints turned up in the Defense Department’s database of known or suspected terrorists, Richardson said.”
The fact that vetting watch lists is so difficult is what makes civil libertarians so wary. While some privacy advocates insist that no personal data should be collected, stored, shared and analyzed, I believe most people understand that those activities play an important security role. There has to be some compromise reached. It may not make everybody happy, but such a compromise should make people on both sides the least unhappy it can. Nakashima concludes with an overview of how the program is changing to include the collection of domestic biometric data.
“If Iraq and Afghanistan were a proving ground of sorts for biometric watch-listing, the U.S. government is moving quickly to try to build a domestic version. Since September 2006, Homeland Security and the FBI have been operating a pilot program in which police officers in Boston, Dallas and Houston run prints of arrestees against a Homeland Security database of immigration law violators and a State Department database of people refused visas. Federal job applicants’ prints also are run against the databases. To date, some 500 people have been found in the database and thus are of interest to Homeland Security officials. Steve Nixon, a director at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said the effort is key to national security. ‘When we look at the road and the challenges, globalization and the spread of technology has empowered small groups of individuals, bad guys, to be more powerful than at any other time in history,’ he said. ‘We have to know who these people are when we encounter them. A lot of what we’re doing in intelligence now is trying to identify a person. Biometrics is a key element of that.'”
As I noted above, there will undoubtedly be compromises in data collection programs that will leave neither side happy. The intelligence and law enforcement communities are always pursuing perfect information and civil libertarians are always looking to keep the government out the lives of individual citizens. The resulting tension may be uncomfortable, but it is also healthy and necessary. A free society that willingly surrenders its liberties doesn’t remain free for long. On the other hand, a society without some norms and enforcement mechanisms quickly erodes into anarchy and chaos. Checks and balances relating to security and privacy issues will only remain strong as long as both sides keep up the good fight.