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Is Data Mining an Invasion of Privacy?

by Kevin Bliss

The Northern California Regional Intelligence Center (“NCRIC”) contracted with surveillance and data mining giant Planatir, cofounded by billionaire and PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel, for services in synthesizing information gathered from databases in hospitals, banks, police departments, and other locations into a comprehensive, understandable format for instant use that would otherwise take investigators hundreds of man hours to compile.

Its data gives law enforcement agencies such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement nearly omniscient knowledge of any person under scrutiny, even if that person is not suspected of a crime.

NCRIC was established in 2007 by the Northern California High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Executive Board to investigate state crimes that appear “organized,” such as terrorism or large-scale trafficking. It is a regional agency that includes 14 counties in northern California covering about 300 police department and 7.9 million people. Funding for the 80-member staff comes completely from the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of National Drug Control Policy. The agency uses Planatir as an intelligence management system, investigating people they believe are involved in major criminal activity, as a secondary surveillance network mapping interpersonal relationships, and as a digital dragnet in an attempt to predict future crimes.

NCRIC’s contract with Planatir expires this year, but the license to continue using the software lasts indefinitely. In addition, NCRIC plans on augmenting its investigative ability by entering into a contract with another data analysis company, SAS, once this contract expires. Although Planatir does not offer facial recognition technology, it can utilize this technology from other companies to enhance its search parameters. And, when used in conjunction with SAS, the result will be individual surveillance of overwhelming proportions.

Jay Stanley of the ACLU stated, “When we at the ACLU hear ‘we need lots of amazing new powers in order to protect you,’ our response is, ‘watch out.’”

With the data that Planatir mines from school records, business registrations, hospitals, marriages, as well as criminal records, parole information, Automatic License Plate Reading systems, etc., an NCRIC agent can build a complete profile of any person in the Northern California region.

The agent will instantly know about that person: from where he or she has been, to purchases, associates, credit rating, travel history, Social Security number, business and work relationships, e-mail accounts, and other myriad number of personal pieces of information. It can even make predictions of trends and connections across data from various sources. Moreover, law enforcement agencies are not required to disclose to anyone that they have been the target of a search.

NCRIC stated that this system is used in all of its work against organized crime. That it’s a core piece of technology supporting investigations of major criminal enterprises operating in the state. Yet, they also expressed that any local law enforcement agency could make a request for any case they are investigating. All they need is a name or a license plate and a reason for the inquiry. An NCRIC agent will be assigned to the request and provide all information gathered using Planatir or other measures. It gives local police departments access to tools and technology they do not have or could not afford on their own. 



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