EFF urges Congress to shine light on FBI data mining

Here's the gist of today's message from the Electronic Frontier Foundation to Congress regarding privacy oversight of the FBI's massive and mysterious Investigative Data Warehouse: We've done all we can do through the Freedom of Information Act; the Obama Administration has abandoned the cause; now, it's up to you to ensure that the rights of law-abiding Americans are protected.

Not much as last chances go.

From the EFF press release:

EFF sued the FBI for information about the IDW under the FOIA in 2006, but the agency has withheld important details about the collection, maintenance, and use of personal information contained in the huge database.  The Department of Justice recently told the court that no additional material will be disclosed, despite the Obama administration's new policies on open government.  In a letter sent today to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy and House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, EFF says that Congress is the last avenue for accountability and oversight of this potentially dangerous program.

"Nearly two years ago, Senator Leahy noted that the IDW was a system that was 'ripe for abuse,'" said EFF Senior Counsel David Sobel.  "We could not agree more.  The congressional judiciary committees should examine the IDW and provide the public with needed information about its impact on privacy rights."

Here's the meat of EFF's letter to Leahy (.pdf):

Since October 2006, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has pursued litigation under the Freedom of Information Act in order to make public details about the IDW. Our efforts have been motivated by the fact that the FBI has published neither a "system of records notice" (as required by the Privacy Act) nor a "privacy impact assessment" (as required by the E-Government Act) for the IDW, thus depriving the public of the kind of accountability that usually comes with the creation and maintenance of large database systems containing sensitive personal information.

Using information released as a result of our FOIA litigation, EFF has now published a report surveying what is publicly known about this massive data collection. As you will see, many questions still remain unanswered. For instance, the FBI has identified only 38 of the 53 "data sources" from which the Bureau obtains material that feeds into the IDW. This is precisely the sort of information that Congress intended would be made available to the public when it enacted the Privacy Act and mandated that agencies must disclose, among other things, "the categories of sources of records in [a] system" containing information about an individual.

Although the FBI has withheld from disclosure many details concerning the collection, maintenance and use of personal information contained in the IDW, Justice recently informed the court that no additional material will be disclosed in our FOIA lawsuit.

In light of that position, it appears that the only vehicle by which additional information about the IDW might be made available to the American people is comprehensive congressional oversight. ... We therefore respectfully request that the Judiciary Committee examine the IDW closely and provide the public with needed assurances concerning its potential impact on the privacy rights of citizens.

The EFF's pieced-together report on IDW can be read here. One thing you'll notice is that much of the information and many of the supporting documents can only be described as ancient history, given that they date to 2004.

Here's what the FBI says about IDW on its own Web site:

As of September 2008, the IDW had:

-- 7,223 active user accounts;

-- 3,826 FBI personnel trained on the system; and,

-- 997,368,450 unique searchable documents.

The IDW transitioned to the operations and maintenance phase during FY 2008.

Not exactly enlightening, but at least more up to date.

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