Thursday, November 8, 2007

Your tax dollars at work

Like Hansel and Gretel hoping to follow their bread crumbs out of the forest, the FBI sifted through customer data collected by San Francisco-area grocery stores in 2005 and 2006, hoping that sales records of Middle Eastern food would lead to Iranian terrorists.

The idea was that a spike in, say, falafel sales, combined with other data, would lead to Iranian secret agents in the south San Francisco-San Jose area.

The brainchild of top FBI counterterrorism officials Phil Mudd and Willie T. Hulon, according to well-informed sources, the project didn’t last long. It was torpedoed by the head of the FBI’s criminal investigations division, Michael A. Mason, who argued that putting somebody on a terrorist list for what they ate was ridiculous — and possibly illegal.

A check of federal court records in California did not reveal any prosecutions developed from falafel trails.

FBI spokesman Paul Bresson would neither confirm nor deny that the bureau ran such data mining, or forward-leaning “domain management,” experiments, but said he would continue to investigate. “It sounds pretty sensational to me,” he said, upon his initial review of the allegation. The techniques were briefly mentioned last year in a PBS Frontline special, “The Enemy Within”.

Mason, who is leaving the FBI to become security chief for Verizon, could not be reached for comment.

The FBI denies that sifting through consumer spending habits amounted to the kind of data mining that caused an uproar when the Pentagon was exposed doing it in 2002.

“Domain management has been portrayed by the bureau as a broad analytic approach, not specific data mining activities,” says Amy Zegart, author of the much-praised recent book, “Spying Blind: The CIA, the FBI and the Origins of 9/11.” “It is a methodology to determine what is known about a problem, develop indices to measure it, and take steps to close knowledge gaps.”

Zegart said her recent interviews with FBI officials “suggest that domain management has been implemented in a spotty fashion; L.A. and New York appear to be ahead of the curve, but some other field offices are not using it and at least one had never heard of it.”

As ridiculous as it sounds, the groceries counting scheme is a measure of how desperate the FBI is to disrupt domestic terrorism plots.

nerdified link

It takes a special kind of paranoia to be looking for "terrorists" behind falafel purchases.

Hat tip to A Sense of Urgency.

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