GAO: Data mining popular with agencies

Almost half of all agencies, including the 24 largest, are using data mining techniques to detect criminals, improve services or uncover waste, fraud or abuse, the General Accounting Office said today.

In a report, Data Mining: Federal Efforts Cover a Wide Range of Uses, examiners found 52 of 128 agencies surveyed are using or plan to use data mining, and 122 of the 199 efforts used personal information from private-sector companies and other agencies.

Data mining uses database technologies such as statistical analysis and modeling to expose patterns and subtle relationships in data and to infer rules that allow for the prediction of future results.

GAO completed the report for Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), ranking member of the Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Financial Management, the Budget and International Security.

The report comes after repeated concerns by lawmakers about the invasion of privacy by anti-terrorist data mining projects, such as the defunct Total Information Awareness project by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

GAO said 52 agencies have put into place 131 data mining efforts, and are planning another 68. Agencies are using most data mining projects to improve performance of programs or the overall agency.

The Defense Department reported the largest number of data mining efforts, GAO said. Most DOD projects were aimed at improving service, managing human resources or analyzing intelligence to detect terrorist or other criminal activities. Homeland Security, Justice and Education departments also reported using data mining to uncover terrorist activities.

Education also is using data mining the more than any other agency to detect waste, fraud and abuse using the techniques in the death database match system or the Pell Grant payment activity application.

NASA leads all agencies in using these techniques for scientific and research analysis, such as searching for scientific data on the Goddard Space Flight Center Web site or the Global Environmental and Earth Science Information System to find data about global climate change.

GAO also found agencies are mining personal data from the private sector such as credit card transactions or credit reports, and from agencies, such as student loan application information or taxpayer identification numbers.

Privacy groups said more controls are needed over agencies use of these technologies.

"The results of this report prove that we need new laws to address these new uses of data," said James X. Dempsey, executive director of the Center for Democracy & Technology in Washington. "More and more agencies are relying on complex data mining techniques and commercial data, a combination that has significant potential to threaten civil liberties. But those agencies are not subject to rules or guidelines to prevent abuse or provide individuals with the ability to challenge the results of data mining."

GAO said it plans a follow-up report on selected data mining efforts.

Wilson P. Dizard III of the GCN staff contributed to this story.

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