Editorial: Maintaining control

After years of being just talk, data mining is in vogue

After years of being just talk, data mining is in vogue. After years of collecting data, technologies are in place that allow agencies to find a needle in a haystack.

In 2003, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency launched the ominous sounding Total Information Awareness program — later renamed Terrorism Information Awareness (TIA). That program sought to scour databases run by airlines, financial institutions and schools for trends that might offer leads on potential terrorists. But DARPA eventually killed that program.

Now most agencies — in fact, most organizations — are looking to use data mining. Perhaps the best-known case is the National Security Agency, which is collecting phone numbers to find trends that can help in the war on terrorism.

Data-mining technology is so tantalizing. The idea that disparate data pieces can somehow yield useable conclusions seems too good to be true.

We have no doubt that there are good reasons to collect this data, but people also have good reasons to feel uncomfortable. Data-mining stories mix with the tales of the Department of Veterans Affairs losing the data of millions of people and a hacker infiltrating Energy Department records. Those incidents are instructive. If you collect the data, you are responsible for it.

Years ago, former Sun Microsystems chief executive officer Scott McNealy said, “You already have zero privacy. Get over it.” But that should not be the basis of sound public policy.

Data-mining technology can be powerful. But regarding what happened with TIA, that power can be frightening. Processes, procedures and guidelines should be in place to guide the use of this technology so that it can be effective without scaring people.

Off-topic: Just a reminder that nominations for Federal Computer Week’s new Rising Star awards program are being accepted through Friday, July 7. The Rising Star awards, which are being selected in conjunction with AFCEA International Bethesda, Md., chapter’s Young AFCEANS, are modeled on the Federal 100 awards. These are young people who have made a difference in the past year. Unlike the Federal 100 awards, the Rising Star awards recognize people we loosely categorize as being in the first third of their careers.

Find more information at www.fcw.com/risingstar.


About the Author

Christopher J. Dorobek is the co-anchor of Federal News Radio’s afternoon drive program, The Daily Debrief with Chris Dorobek and Amy Morris, and the founder, publisher and editor of the DorobekInsider.com, a leading blog for the Federal IT community.

Dorobek joined Federal News Radio in 2008 with 16 years of experience covering government issues with an emphasis on government information technology. Prior to joining Federal News Radio, Dorobek was editor-in-chief of Federal Computer Week, the leading news magazine for government IT decision-makers and the flagship of the 1105 Government Information Group portfolio of publications. As editor-in-chief, Dorobek served as a member of the senior leadership team at 1105 Government Information Group, providing daily editorial direction and management for FCW magazine, FCW.com, Government Health IT and its other editorial products.

Dorobek joined FCW in 2001 as a senior reporter and assumed increasing responsibilities, becoming managing editor and executive editor before being named editor-in-chief in 2006. Prior to joining FCW, Dorobek was a technology reporter at PlanetGov.com, one of the first online community centers for current and former government employees. He also spent five years at Government Computer News, another leading industry publication, covering a variety of federal IT-related issues.

Dorobek is a frequent speaker on issues involving the government IT industry, and has appeared as a frequent contributor to NewsChannel 8’s Federal News Today program. He began his career as a reporter at the Foster’s Daily Democrat, a daily newspaper in Dover, N.H. He is a graduate of the University of Southern California. He lives in Washington, DC.


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