TCS Daily

Data-Mining for Dollars

By Debra Rappaport Rosen - January 3, 2005 12:00 AM

When the Pentagon in 2002 announced a plan to employ powerful, computerized searches of public data to discern an individual's potential ties to terror, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) stood on principle and resisted what it considered a governmental invasion of individual privacy. The organization echoed its objection earlier this year when it pulled out of a federally sponsored grant program that required it to identify any potential links between its affiliates and terror groups.

What a shock, then, that last month the ACLU discarded any pretense of consistency and respect for their donors' right to privacy with regard to their fundraising efforts. As reported by the New York Times, the organization has embarked on an ambitious data mining program, has denigrated dissenters within its ranks as "whistle-punks," and has generally embraced a disturbing hypocrisy that threatens to undermine the very values it purports to defend.

Two years ago the Pentagon announced the Total Information Awareness (TIA) program, which aimed to use powerful search engines to comb public records and determine whether individual Americans had ties to terror. The ACLU strongly objected to the program -- which it termed "Big Brother" -- because it threatened an "end to privacy" and freedom of association.

The organization's concerns were not limited to the aspects of the program involving government and terrorism; the criticisms were also targeted at the very concept of data mining, or trawling databases in search of trends or anomalies. Testifying before Congress, the director of the ACLU's Technology and Liberty program referred to a generalized "surveillance monster" slowly choking our society and eviscerating our privacy.

Then earlier this year, according to the Times, the ACLU pulled out of a Ford Foundation program that required the group to perform the same background check on its donors and employees, a withdrawal that appeared to reflect the organization's belief in according its affiliates the same respect they insisted all Americans deserved from the government.

But the Times exposed the fickleness of this belief in its report that the ACLU had hired a marketing firm to employ software called Prospect Explorer to collect a wide range of information about its donors. This stunning turn of events raises a seemingly straightforward question: Is it better to use information uncovered by data mining to ensure the security of our nation or to increase the amount of dollars an organization can fundraise?

When individuals, families or other entities donate to a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt non-profit organization they understand that their gift must be made public under the federal tax code, which requires that all gifts be listed in the organization's returns. What these donors may not realize is that some non-profit organizations, such as the ACLU, use their personal information to find out more about their financial situation in order to target them as bigger donors. This is the reality of an increasingly competitive philanthropic marketplace.

All professional fundraisers understand the pressures that come from the constant need to secure large gifts in order to ensure the future stability of an organization. But there has to be a limit, a line in the sand that professionals don't cross even if it means giving up a large gift. In order to uphold its mission statement, the non-profit must take into account any unsavory associations of potential donors. A non-profit bears the ultimate responsibility for discovering information about its donors that could compromise the organization's cherished values.

For example, a non-profit that provides financial and emotional support to underprivileged families and children would never accept money from an individual it knows to be affiliated with pedophiles. By the same token, one might think that an organization, such as the ACLU, which strives to uphold civil liberties for all Americans, would turn away support from potential terrorists who seek to destroy these freedoms altogether.

But by opposing the TIA and withdrawing from the Ford program, the ACLU made a statement that one should not search a donor's background to rule out terrorist links. On the other hand, the ACLU is willing to data-mine for other information that it finds more important: how much a donor earns, her real estate holdings, investment portfolio, and other financial information.

To make things worse, the ACLU's 1,700-word privacy policy is both confusing and subject to change at any time at the organization's whim. The policy authorizes the dissemination of certain information to third-parties unless the donor directly specifies that they opt out of this process. There is also vague language at the end of this policy that appears to negate any protection offered by the privacy policy in "special circumstances."

It was this policy that came under attack by ACLU's own board members recently. In response to this opposition, the Times reported, fellow board members called these individuals "whistle-punks" and subsequently banned them from future meetings.

This conduct, all told, does a terrible disservice to the ACLU's critical mission of protecting our precious freedoms. The organization's hypocrisy only serves to undermine the values we as Americans hold dear.

Debra Rappaport Rosen is a professional non-profit fundraiser who resides in San Diego.



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