Money will go to research, domestic surveillance agencies (NSA, DHS), and emergency responder programs

Dr. John P. Holdren, Assistant to the President and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, was on hand last Thursday to kick off the administration's "big data" push.  The Obama administration plans to allocate $200M USD in funds from the federal budget towards improving data mining by various federal agencies.

I. On the Hunt of Big Data

Dr. Holdren describes, "In the same way that past Federal investments in information-technology R&D led to dramatic advances in supercomputing and the creation of the Internet, the initiative we are launching today promises to transform our ability to use Big Data for scientific discovery, environmental and biomedical research, education, and national security."

The new push is dubbed the "The Big Data Research and Development Initiative" and it aims to mine useful information out of complex, rich data sets.

Data Mining

Projects include [PDF]:
  • A National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) project to mine imaging, molecular, cellular, electrophysiological, chemical, behavioral, epidemiological, clinical, and other data sets related to health and disease.  This project aims to extract "useful information" and create visualizations of the mined data.
  • Funding aid for the 1000 Genomes Project Data, which is hosting 200 TB of freely available genetic information on, Inc.'s (AMZN) Amazon Web Services (AWS).
  • "Earthcube", a site sponsored by the NSF and U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), aimed at sharing climate change information and other "Earth system science" data sets between researchers in a transparent manner.
  • The XDATA project sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which aims to dissect "text documents, message traffic", as well as semi-structured data.
  • A Department of Defense (DOD) project also funded by a $250M USD DOD budget allocation, which aims to use data mining to improve deployed soldiers' situational awareness. (It sounds like this involves reading foreign language newspapers, bulletins, etc. and extracting useful information.)
  • A new supercomputing insitute, dubbed the Scalable Data Management, Analysis and Visualization (SDAV) Institute, whose focus will be on scientific data mining.  The SDAV will be a joint project between the national labs, led by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
II. But What About Domestic Spying?

Throughout the press release there's nary a mention of "national security" (outside a traditional military context) data mining programs.  However, past releases from the Obama administration have hinted at domestic surveillance data mining efforts with Orwellian names such as the U.S. National Security Agency's (NSA) "Perfect Citizen" program.

Digging into the associated longer in-depth fact sheet, however, it is revealed that the NSA will be obtaining funding for deep data mining projects, as will the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).  

The NSA mentions it will use (part) of its funding for a contest called "Vigilent Net", which will encourage private sector partners to work together in a cohesive government-aided network against (presumably) foreign threats.  The DHS effort is listed as a partnership with Rutgers University, Purdue University, and three other institutions to use data mining to "address issues ranging from manmade or natural disasters to terrorist incidents; law enforcement to border security concerns; and explosives to cyber threats."

Watchful eye
[Image Source: Alex's Archives]

Some fear that such efforts are increasingly working to comb through volumes of U.S. citizens' email, text messages, and internet posting traffic, in a warrantless effort to monitor them.  At this point information on such programs' state of completion is largely annecdotal, but it seems unlikely that they have reached a very high level of sophistication, given the federal government's general security incompetence.

For better (research) or worse (domestic surveillance) data mining looks to be a tool increasing used by the federal government and federally-funded reserachers in the years ahead, and the Obama administration's recent spending commitments have reflected that.

Interestingly the Obama administration has backed efforts to limit for-profit data mining by the private sector and create opt outs.

Sources: White House [1], [2; PDF], [3; PDF]

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