Data Mining and the Security-Liberty Debate

Privacy and Security, Networks, the Internet, and Cloud Computing and Internet

Article Snapshot


Daniel J. Solove


University of Chicago Law Review, Vol. 74, p. 343, 2008


This article discusses the ineffectiveness of comparing security against liberty in the context of data mining.

Policy Relevance

Unless the effectiveness of security measures is taken into effect in determining when security interests outweigh privacy interests the security interest will always win.

Main Points

  • Data mining is a process in which government agencies collect large amounts of data about as many people as possible; this information is then gathered in a database where it can be searched. Data mining has many uses, but currently it is used to search for suspicious patterns of activity that match activity of known terrorists.
  • There has been concern that the huge amounts of data gathered in preparation for data mining infringes on individual privacy rights of citizens. The counter argument is the importance of catching terrorists.
  • This debate between personal liberty, in the form of privacy, and national security is a much larger issue that is well represented by the data mining example. In general, social liberties often lose out to security interests because the importance of stopping terrorism is so extreme.
  • However, to simply assume that any measure designed to stop terrorism is successful is a flawed premise.  The effectiveness of individual security measures needs to be determined before the security interest can properly be balanced against the social liberty.
  • In the case of data mining, it is difficult to balance the liberty interest against the security interest for several reasons.

    • It is difficult to know how effective data mining is in preventing terrorism.
    • People place inconsistent amounts of importance on privacy depending on the circumstance.
    • The secondary issues involved in data mining, such as infringement on the first amendment or equal protection, are unclear, and, as such, provide an unknown variable in the balancing equation.
  • What is clear is that the current balancing tests used strongly favor security interests because the effectiveness of the measures introduced is not evaluated prior to balancing. Until the effectiveness of data mining can be determined, it will be impossible to properly determine whether it is more or less important that the loss of privacy it comes with.

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