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  1. Wealth
March 9, 2009

Tracking your every move

By Spear's

Data-mining fleshes out details of the behaviour of terrorist suspects, and helps develop profiles of potential terrorists.

The British government is contemplating a recommendation that it should have unrestricted access, without a warrant, to anyone’s travel, phone and email records.

This technique, known as data-mining, is intended to flesh out details of the behaviour of terrorist suspects, and to help develop profiles of potential terrorists. Although data-mining does not involve direct access to actual conversations of the content of email or text messages, its purpose is to assist in the development of a wiring diagram which seeks to reveal a person’s contacts.

Combined with other information, such as the particular places visited in possession of a cellphone, the automated system can scan thousands of records to build a picture of the target’s activities.

According to Sir David Omand, now retired from several intelligence posts, including director of GCHQ, this is an essential weapon in the fight against terrorism, but it is also a real intrusion into the kind of privacy that has been taken for granted in many democracies.

One argument suggests that while a benign administration might honour the limits placed on data-mining, a future, less agreeable government might easily find it advantageous to abuse its power.

It does not take much imagination to appreciate the potential consequences. Access, for example, to travel details opens up information about airlines, credit cards, banks, passports and a whole range of further sources. 

The question for the public is whether politicians and their civil servants can be trusted with this information. Until we know whether the technique is used in specific investigations, where there is already evidence suggesting involvement in terrorism, or if it is nothing more than wholesale trawling for data, we must be suspicious.

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