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Safeguarding Privacy While Mining Data

The government possesses powerful data-mining technology to find patterns that could help catch suspected terrorists. But it must use it in a way that doesn't hurt ordinary Americans, the head of a government advisory panel says.

"The technology is very powerful and we've got to use it," says Newton Minow, who chaired the Technology and Privacy Advisory Committee, which issued its report in 2004. "The problem is we've got to use it in a way that does not harm every ordinary American."

The National Security Agency's domestic eavesdropping program and its collection of phone data is not the first time the government has tried to use data-mining technology. After the Sept. 11 attacks, the Pentagon began to set up a database of information about Americans' personal lives -- and find ways to search that data for patterns that could lead to terrorist activities.

Congress found out about the plan and shut it down.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld appointed a committee to investigate the use of data mining. Chairing that panel was Minow, who headed the Federal Communications Commission during the Kennedy administration.

"The specific concerns are that innocent people who have done nothing wrong will get caught up in this technology," Minow says. "A lot of people have the same names, there can be errors in the records, a lot of innocent people get stopped from traveling... It's very easy to make a lot of mistakes with this technology."

"If you're dealing with American citizens, we think it's essential that you go to court to get a warrant," Minow says. "And the FISA [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] court is set up to do that."

And, he said, any data-mining programs need "very close supervision" by a privacy officer and by Congress.

Minow says the 2004 TAPAC report, which was presented to the Bush administration and Congress, was largely ignored. He hopes the report will be looked at anew.

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Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.