Do We Need a Data Court?

FISA courts may not be equipped to make fast and smart decisions in the big data world.

The complex information, security and privacy issues brought to the fore by recently exposed National Security Agency programs to mine telephone and Internet data might best be handled by a special “data court,” the Economist magazine’s Data Editor Kenneth Cukier said Friday.

That’s because data, metadata and privacy issues can be so complex, and intelligence agencies’ requests for data can be so time sensitive, that they may require judges and attorneys with specialized expertise to manage them, Cukier said.

The U.S. federal system includes specialized courts for civil rights and securities violations and some other nations have specialized intellectual property courts.

Judges from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court who currently authorize the government’s mining of telephone metadata involving foreign callers may lack sufficient understanding of how data the government collects can be used, how data may be linked together to produce additional information and how it may affect the privacy of Americans on the other end of many of those calls, Cukier said.

He was speaking at a State Department event focused on how new data analytics tools and other emerging technologies may affect U.S. diplomacy.

Ambassador Marc Grossman, formerly President Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, who spoke at the same event, was less bullish on a data court, saying he viewed the debate as largely about the balance between protecting citizens’ privacy and guarding against terrorism rather than about data analysis itself.

Grossman and Ambassador Alan Larson, former undersecretary of State for economics, both noted that the White House informed Congress about the controversial information gathering programs and received court approval.

Cukier also suggested government, businesses and other groups may soon need to hire “algorithimsts,” or data ambassadors to explain the complex interplay of data and privacy in their work.