N-DEx, Coplink, and security

March 6, 2008

This morning’s WaPo story on “National Data Exchance” (N-DEx ), the new DoJ system for integrating intelligence information gathered across federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, makes for a disturbing, albeit thought-provoking read.

First off, the fact that a system like this is going online for use by organizations that have so blatantly violated privacy and human rights in the interests of national security in the past makes me uneasy to say the least. There is no transparency here – beyond the private contractors hired to design and maintain the system – and (thanks to post-9/11 changes foisted on our legal system) you can bet there will be minimal oversight from congress, the courts, or civil society organizations to defend against abuses. Yikes.

The larger question here concerns the value of such a system and the approach to law enforcement it represents. In the article, we read:

“A guy that’s got a flat tire outside a nuclear facility in one location means nothing,” said Thomas E. Bush III, the FBI’s assistant director of the criminal justice information services division. “Run the guy and he’s had a flat tire outside of five nuclear facilities and you have a clue.”

Now this all sounds lovely in the abstract, but for me it conjures up images of Amaznode, except the DoJ search engine will probably generate connections between people, places, and actions as opposed to just books.

So what’s the big deal? Well, guilt by association is one thing, but guilt by data-connection is another. Numerous, better-informed people with more educated opinions than I have written at length about the dangers of applying data-mining techniques for public security. With so much information, the risk of “false positive” connections becomes extremely high. Think of this in terms of a few analogies: How often do you really want to buy the books that Amazon recommends you? How frequently do Google’s ads not pertain to the actual content or intentions behind your search? Reading between the lines of Thomas E. Bush III’s statement above, it does not take a lot of imagination to see that the success of a system like N-DEx (or its already operational cousin, Coplink – see the article for details) will hinge on its ability to help officials avoid these kinds of problems.

As the number of ways in which our everyday lives connect us to electronic records and surveillance will only continue to grow for the foreseeable future (RFID, IP addresses, biometrics, etc.), it makes me wonder how far we are from encryption tools that will extend the capacity for anonymous browsing into our everyday lives.

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