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Medill Privacy in an Age of Security

Northwestern University's News21 fellows look at America's new system of surveillance, developed by the government with the help of private data mining firms after 9/11. One story reports on how the Social Security Administration's massive databases are being used in homeland security investigations; another uncovers new details about a secretive program in which the Department of Education shared personal information on hundreds of student loan applicants with the FBI. Two immersive interactive presentations explore the digital trails we leave behind in our daily lives and government data-mining initiatives that might incorporate information about you.

Government Data Mining Programs

By Matt Ford, September 1, 2006

Who are you? For everyone from marketing companies to intelligence agencies, the answer lies in information.

Credit card transactions, e-mails, phone calls, medical records, tax returns, social security numbers, home loans, credit histories. All this information is collected and stored by private companies or government agencies.

Individually, each piece of information gives only a small glimpse into people’s lives -- but over time, these bits of personal information can begin to reveal patterns. Such as the places they go, the products they buy, or perhaps the type of people they associate with.
This pattern-recognition process is called “Data Mining” or sometimes “Knowledge Discovery.”

Since September 11, the federal government -- especially intelligence and law enforcement agencies -- have turned to data mining programs to make sense of growing oceans of data.

The end result isn’t always about discovering what people have done -- but what people might do tomorrow.

What does a terrorist look like? What is the culmination of their credit, contacts, purchases and travel? Is it possible that you might share these similar patterns?

Chances are at least some of these programs sift through personal information about you.

Launch Interactive >

Content provided by Matt Ford, Karen Harmel and the other fellows of News21. Illustrations, original graphics and Flash/PHP programming by From Scratch Design.

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