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FBI May Have Datamined Grocery Stores With Help From Credit Companies 442

Posted by Zonk
from the so-you-like-hummus-do-you-mr.-smartguy dept.
An anonymous reader writes "Recent media reports indicate that in 2005-06, the FBI went trawling through grocery store records in order to track down Iranian terror cells. They hoped to locate 'Middle-Eastern terrorists' through the purchase of specific food items. Many of these items, though, are not sold through big-box supermarket chains, and the majority of mom and pop ethnic markets do not have the detailed computer purchase histories that Safeway or Whole Foods have. What the FBI seems to have done is instead put together a list of everyone who shopped at a Middle Eastern food market. All signs point to the credit card companies providing this data, and not the individual stores. If so, this could be the tip of a (potentially illegal) data-mining iceberg."
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FBI May Have Datamined Grocery Stores With Help From Credit Companies

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  • by Mr_Perl (142164) on Friday November 09, 2007 @10:03AM (#21294447) Homepage
    Falafil Inc. sues the FBI for defamation of character and loss of business.

    • by show me altoids (1183399) on Friday November 09, 2007 @10:38AM (#21294907)

      Falafil Inc. sues the FBI for defamation of character and loss of business.

      I really falafel about this.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by rvw (755107)

      Falafil Inc. sues the FBI for defamation of character and loss of business.
      Hey man have you ever see a falafel explode? I sure don't want to be around! And if they're still frozen, you will never know what hits you if a mad falafel-seller comes after you. Man this is really dangerous!
  • by smitty_one_each (243267) * on Friday November 09, 2007 @10:04AM (#21294453) Homepage Journal
    data-mining iceberg lettuce hovercraft eel overflow
  • Because people who grew up having to make their own food from scratch are going to suddenly stop doing that and start buying the Kraft brand.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      "Because people who grew up having to make their own food from scratch are going to suddenly stop doing that and start buying the Kraft brand."

      And how many people who are just trying to eat healthier and get a bit of variety in their diet are they going to snag?

      Or who go there because its convenient to rent a movie (a lot of these places rent movies, etc).

      • Re:Because (Score:5, Insightful)

        by megaditto (982598) on Friday November 09, 2007 @10:50AM (#21295131)
        You don't understand how datamining works. Records of you shopping for Islamic food by and in itself is irrelevant. Nobody is going to throw you in jail because you love a falaffel now and then
        However, once FBI computers have access to hundreds of unrelated databases, they can do things like

        RETURN PERSON ID where gender is a male AND between 17-35 AND shops at Islamic stores AND has expired visa AND received large cash transfers from an Islamic country AND bought a one-way ticket on an airplane AND is on the same flight as others of that class.

        • Re:Because (Score:5, Insightful)

          by joranbelar (567325) on Friday November 09, 2007 @11:24AM (#21295771) Homepage
          RETURN PERSON ID where gender is a male AND between 17-35 AND shops at Islamic stores AND has expired visa AND received large cash transfers from an Islamic country AND bought a one-way ticket on an airplane AND is on the same flight as others of that class.

          (2 row(s) returned)

          RETURN PERSON ID where gender is a male AND between 17-35 AND has expired visa AND received large cash transfers from an Islamic country AND bought a one-way ticket on an airplane AND is on the same flight as others of that class.

          (2 row(s) returned)

          Thank God for the grocery store data! ;)
          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by houghi (78078)
            It could even be that the AND will rule out those 2 as well. A nice proof is google. The first line returns 15 results. The second one 24.

        • Re:Because (Score:5, Insightful)

          by mOdQuArK! (87332) on Friday November 09, 2007 @11:27AM (#21295833)
          They can also do stuff like: RETURN PERSON ID where party != party in control of government AND buys anti-Administration magazines AND owns a gun AND actively participates in political protests.

          Why do pro-government apologists always sound like they're about to piss their pants in fear of terrorists? Who is more likely to destroy your life, a terrorist or the government?
          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by Gregour (891193)
            Exactly. How do people not understand this?

            Whenever someone proposes giving the government a new power, there's an easy way to test if the government should have that power. Think of the person or people you'd least like to see in power. Then ask yourself if you would like that person or people to have that power.

            If you wouldn't want your opposition to have that power, you shouldn't give it to the government, because, sooner or later, your opposition will be in control.
        • Re:Because (Score:5, Insightful)

          by ObsessiveMathsFreak (773371) <obsessivemathsfreakNO@SPAMeircom.net> on Friday November 09, 2007 @12:49PM (#21297411) Homepage Journal


          RETURN PERSON ID where gender is a male AND between 17-35 AND shops at Islamic stores AND has expired visa AND received large cash transfers from an Islamic country AND bought a one-way ticket on an airplane AND is on the same flight as others of that class.

          0 rows returned

          FBI Agent: "Damn! Now what? ....."

          RETURN PERSON ID where RELIGION='Islam'
  • Alienation (Score:5, Insightful)

    by explosivejared (1186049) <hagan.jared@g m a i l .com> on Friday November 09, 2007 @10:06AM (#21294475)
    Why not just say anyone of middle-eastern descent is automatically a threat? That's basically what it's come down to. How in the world is food purchasing data related to terror suspects. Alienation only leads to more strife. This doesn't do anything but make relations worse.
    • by ByOhTek (1181381) on Friday November 09, 2007 @10:10AM (#21294529) Journal
      because, non-middle easterners might like the food.

      And thus, even though not ME, they must be terrorists too!

      *sigh* I didn't realize I was a terrorist :-( It's just that the food is so yummy.
      • by toleraen (831634)

        It's just that the food is so yummy.
        I'm sure there's a bathroom + developing WMDs joke in there somewhere
      • by djasbestos (1035410) on Friday November 09, 2007 @10:21AM (#21294655)
        Seriously. Shawarma with saffron rice FTW.

        I guess I am a bad American for liking terrorist food...hummus...Hamas...same thing, right?
      • Re:Alienation (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Hoi Polloi (522990) on Friday November 09, 2007 @10:58AM (#21295275) Journal
        I bought some halva, baba ganoush, and pita bread recently. I guess I should expect a knock on the door soon.

        The whole FBI story sounds like they are trying to generate a boogey man where there is none (gotta keep that budget fat!). Iran and Hezbollah's focus isn't global but regional. If they have agents in the US it would most likely be for political or for fund raising reasons, not terrorism. They might carry out an attack if we attacked Iran but that wouldn't exactly come as a surprise.

        I hope our relations with Italy never sour. I'd hate to be put on the no fly list for buying olive oil and prosciutto.
      • Re:Alienation (Score:5, Insightful)

        by n dot l (1099033) on Friday November 09, 2007 @10:59AM (#21295293)
        This is absurd. Next thing you know they'll be going after people that like Chinese cooking on the grounds that they're probably Communists. Oh, that's right, most people that leave China (you know, the ones that open up Chinese ethnic food shops/restaurants) do so to get away from the communists. Has it dawned on these people that a large number of Middle-Easterners might have the same sentiments regarding the religeous extremeism, tyrranical regimes and terrorist groups that are common in their home lands?

        Next month's headlines:
        • People who eat French cuisine profiled as likely supporters of socialized medicine. Names posted, extreme-right-wingers encouraged to kill them on sight.
        • People eating Mexican food deemed lazy. Fired en mass.
        • FBI struggles to find uniquely Canadian food: "How else will we know where they all are?" Says spokesperson.
    • by MBCook (132727) <foobarsoft@foobarsoft.com> on Friday November 09, 2007 @10:21AM (#21294663) Homepage

      Ketchup. They're seeing who isn't buying enough.

      Ketchup has natural mellowing agents that help to keep you satisfied with our government and able to accept what happens to you.

      -- A message from the Ketchup Advisory Board

      (This is well documented. See here [publicradio.org] and here [publicradio.org], for example.)

    • by inKubus (199753)
      Well, if you're not eating good Christian foods of good Texas beef and pork and Idaho potatoes, then you obviously support terrorism. Eating kebabs and lebni shows that you support the murder of 20,000 2,000 Jewish-American businessmen at ground zero on Nine-Eleven, Oh-One. And when you ingest the anti-Christ in the form of saffron-infused Basmati rice, you stand a much higher chance of being recruited by organizations wishing to attack Jesus America. Therefore, to be safe, we will be keeping detailed fi
    • by Splab (574204)
      I'm from Denmark, so things might be different, but here quite a lot of Danes shop in middle eastern grocery shops. Prices are often low, they are often open when no super markets are (big shops aren't allowed to be open after 8 pm and may only be open some 12 Sundays a year) and on top of that you can get quite a lot of excellent tasting food not carried in the regular shops.
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward
      In fairness, the article says: "the project didn't last long. It was torpedoed by the head of the FBI's criminal investigations division, Michael A. Mason, who argued that putting somebody on a terrorist list for what they ate was ridiculous -- and possibly illegal."

      In any big organization there will be stupid ideas. The important thing is that dumb ideas get stopped, which in this case happened.
    • by TheMeuge (645043) on Friday November 09, 2007 @10:51AM (#21295151)
      I think that it's even more insidious than what you describe. It's not even being Middle Eastern that attracts the attention of authorities in this matter, but rather what food you purchase.

      This isn't even targeted ethnic discrimination, but rather a blatant foray into the realm of persecuting any deviation from the "american norm". To me, this says: "What, you don't purchase apple pies, soda, and hamburger? Instead you buy pita, chickpeas, and lamb? You're not like us... thus you are an enemy"

      This is not just ethnic profiling run amock, but rather the beginnings of persecuting any differences from the average. The logical continuation of this policy would be to data mine television watching habits, and blacklist those who do not watch reality TV... or better yet, flag anyone whose TV is turned on for less than 2 hours per day.
  • This combined with the "secret room" In ATT for the NSA, and no need for FISA court (which the judges themselves angry). Full disclosure, full steam ahead!
    • It's silliness like this that a good round of impeachment hearings would bring to light all at once. Sure, we get a trickle of privacy invasions, unconstitutional breaches, and so on. But then we're also /. readers, contributors to the EFF and/or ACLU (I donate to both), and generally tuned in, unlike most of the populace. A sudden flood of all the BS that's been going on in the name of counter-terrorism would be a nice slap in the face to wake people up.
  • You can't have a decent scandal without a snappy catchphrase.
  • What? (Score:2, Redundant)

    by downix (84795)
    So my love of Lebanese food will make me a marked man?

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by CRCulver (715279)
      I know! One of my big hobbies is strapping on a bomb and muttering threats against the U.S. government, but with stories like this I'm afraid I might be taken for one of those terrorists.
    • by rucs_hack (784150)
      yes, if you shop in one of the mined locations.

      If someone else who turns out to be a real terrorist, or even makes the list of 'shifty looking, might be a danger' shops in the same place, or turns out to have been there at the same time, expect 'inconveniences'.
    • by canuck57 (662392)

      So my love of Lebanese food will make me a marked man?

      Doubtful. Lots of people eat the stuff.

      But think, they are actually targeting the terrorists. I doubt they eat beef hot dogs from Costco or buy Kentucky Bourbon. Terrorists are also transient. So a lot of one time purchases, or 2-3 week visits might indicate something. Combine this with other sources and at least you have a smaller, likely better list than going after Christian grandmothers looking for a nip at Bob's liqueur emporium. At least i

  • by shrubya (570356) on Friday November 09, 2007 @10:08AM (#21294507) Homepage Journal
    Better put Bill O'Reilly [google.com] on the airport watch list then.
  • by smooth wombat (796938) on Friday November 09, 2007 @10:12AM (#21294545) Homepage Journal
    I always use cash when I go to Achmed's Food Emporium with his "special" back room full of "good deals".
  • Quit sending Men In Black with their shaded-window cars into my shop! They're scaring away my customers!
  • by RandoX (828285) on Friday November 09, 2007 @10:13AM (#21294561)
    Buying hunting ammunition? Pay cash. Buying food? Cash. Fireworks? Cash. Whether I have a reason to or not. And don't get me started on those "in-store discount cards".
    • When I was young my parents stopped shopping at a store that used those free 'discount' cards. My father's reasoning was that if they really wanted to give him a discount, they wouldn't require him to have a card to do it.

      When I was in college the local grocery store stopped using the blasted things because roommates would barrow each others cards, skewing the data they were trying to collect. Serves them right.

      No, I don't believe in those things either. It's nobody's business what am/am not buying, rega
    • I love the savings that I get using an in-store discount card! ...I should mention that I found my in-store discount card on the ground in the store parking lot. I have no idea whose card I'm using. I'll be sure to buy plenty of middle eastern food in their honor.
    • discount cards (Score:3, Interesting)

      by jefu (53450)

      I keep thinking it would be fun to offer a randomizing service for discount cards. Get a web site somewhere and have people mail you their discount card with a self-addressed stamped envelope. Pull one out of a box and return that, and drop the one you got into a box. The very paranoid could do this every month or two. Make it very hard to track anyone's purchases.

      Of course, then your name might get associated with someone who is buying strange stuff. But if that occurred in another state, it would

  • Wow! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by gstoddart (321705) on Friday November 09, 2007 @10:15AM (#21294573) Homepage
    If that's not racial profiling, I don't know what is?

    Getting the information on anyone who purchased food at a Middle Eastern market? That's just crazy, and scarily over-broad.

    Hell, I shop at Middle Eastern markets, and I'm about as pasty white as you get. I mean, where else am I gonna get some of those things? You can't buy them elsewhere, and they're just so damned yummy. Come to think of it, I shop at Latin Markets, Asian Markets, and Caribbean Markets -- does that make me a terrorist? Or merely someone who eats a lot of ethnic food?

    This is like that now eerie joke about being arrested at an airport for "traveling while brown". Surely it's still legal and un-suspicious to buy ethnic food for crying out loud -- they're the only ones who have food worth eating. :-P

    Cheers
    • As long as you like your ethnic food with bacon, you're safe enough.
    • Well, it's not racial profiling and that's just proof that it's stupid. The program is certainly MEANT to be profiling by race/religion/ethnicity but situations like yours, where non-Muslims shop at these stores, reduce it's effectiveness in discriminating on these bases. This entire thing is ridiculous and I hope the government has better ideas than this when they try to keep me alive.
  • Sources? (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday November 09, 2007 @10:16AM (#21294593)
    I like how the article linked as a source ("All signs point to...") contains the phrase: I have no sources at all for my argument today. I have nothing to back it up other than a gut feeling.

    If you read the CQ article, which is the only source of information here (the other two rely on it totally), it is not clear that this idiotic program was ever implemented to any extent whatever. It may have just been some words written on a napkin after a late night of drunken FBI 'brain'-storming.
  • by NetDanzr (619387) on Friday November 09, 2007 @10:17AM (#21294607)
    I'm patiently waiting for the FBI to knock on my door and arrest me for all the ingredients I used (digested) in my attempts to create the perfect stink bomb.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday November 09, 2007 @10:19AM (#21294641)
    I can't believe the FBI didn't figure out what a stupid idea this was! It's unbelievable. Oh, wait...

    The program, however, was short lived and was quickly "torpedoed by the head of the FBI's criminal investigations division, Michael A. Mason, who argued that putting somebody on a terrorist list for what they ate was ridiculous -- and possibly illegal."

  • Also, what did they do with said list? Surely datamining usually begins with selecting a population and narrowing down based on some criteria, so you have to start with a large population (although I'm not condoning anything the FBI is doing), which puts this pretty much exactly in line with pure McCarthyism - just replace "red" or "communist" with "arab" or "terrorist".

    What's scarier, that the credit card companies might be in bed with the government as much as telecoms, or what the FBI will do with th
  • Why is the FBI full of fucking idiots?
    Sifting through billions of food purchases is not going to find a serious terror threat, not even when combined with any other data. For instance: John Ahmed Richardson has decided to become a terrorist after being recruited by militant persons. First, his flying lessons will not raise suspicions. Second, his explosives license for construction work will not either. Third, the chemical contaminants he will use to cause an eventual shutdown of a power grid are snuck into
    • Sifting through billions of food purchases is not going to find a serious terror threat, not even when combined with any other data.
      But it does mean the agents get paid.
      And the supervisors get to have a bunch of agents working for them on a project.
      And their supervisors get to show that they are spending tax payer money on counter terrorism programs.

      And so the DHS empire with all its little fiefdoms gets to justify its enormous budget.
    • by Bobzibub (20561)
      They're not idiots, they just have much too much money to spend.
      Once you start targeting the general population, time to cut the budget.
    • They're not stupid at all. You're just not thinking... the point isn't to say "that guy is a terrorist due to his hummus consumption!".

      They're trying to identify sleeper agents. They gather huge amounts of data from phone/email intercepts, and use stuff like this to identify social networks. One white guy eating pitas is meaningless, but a network of 12 people who shop at the same ethnic groceries who have one or two degrees of separation from a known terrorist is more significant. If you were looking for I
  • Too dependent (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Etrias (1121031) on Friday November 09, 2007 @10:30AM (#21294779)
    We've become far too dependent on technology for trying to do actual investigative work. Data mining for ethnic foods? What happened to having a spy network in places that have known terrorists or security threats? Is the will even there to do this kind of first hand work or have we just given up and rely on computer algorithms to do the work for us?

    Maybe someone within the FBI/NSA is pushing for technological solutions to do this kind of heavy lifting that used to be done by people. I don't know, but it doesn't make a lot of sense. We're not a meat and potatoes society anymore. People of every stripe are going out of their comfort zones and finding ethnic food really tasty (I am one of those people within the last 7-10 years). Do I get put on a watch list because I go through a month where I'm craving a good gyro and find the best place to get really good gyro is my local halal shop?

    Shocking. But now all this food talk has made me hungry. Thanks FBI.
  • Are you f'ing serious? Isn't this exactly the kind of abuse that privacy advocates have been screaming about since the start? What does this kind of shopping preference tell you, seriously? For starters, it does not actually tell you if the person is Middle Eastern! There is simply a greater likelihood that the person is. But do we really care if the person is Middle Eastern? No! We're looking for terrorists! Once again, there's simply another, slightly higher (because, honestly, what proportion of
  • Worse than credit cards are the "Food Club" discount cards. Around here we have lots of Food Lion grocery stores (they're practically in every town), and they use "MVP" cards. Customers only get sale prices if they have an MVP card. The cards are free, but you have to fill out some demographic information on the application.

    Those things allow tracking of every single item a customer purchases, regardless of how they pay. Most customers are completely oblivious to the privacy ramifications.

    Dan East
    • The cards are free, but you have to fill out some demographic information on the application.

      I've only been in one store where i had to show id to get the card, and that was in Pittsburgh, PA. I was only there for a weekend; I made one purchase. I did save about 4 bucks, tho, so it was worth it. To me, anyway. I don't guess the store cares that one kid from Colorado bought some stuff to make PB&J's for the weekend.

      All the other stores just hand the card over, and tell you to fill out the form and
    • The cards are free, but you have to fill out some demographic information on the application.

      Food club cards are fun to trade with friends and strangers. Not so much to screw with the FBI or NSA as to pollute the grocery stores' databases. I don't think I've accurately filled out the application for a food club card since I realized what they were doing with them.

    • by slashkitty (21637)
      It's true. I've spoken to a few managers about this. They would flat out refuse to give me a card with out my ID. I'm all like, I don't want you tracking my purchases and I don't want you sending me crap. They are like, well then, shop elsewhere.
  • Anyone who's watched The Siege knows terrorists like eating pizza.
  • by jollyreaper (513215) on Friday November 09, 2007 @10:34AM (#21294849)
    Everything we heard about the 9-11 operation (granted, it was filtered through the government) is that these were cash operations. And that only makes sense. Given the state of technology these days, the following rules for covert operation seem to make sense:

    1. Operate cash-only to make your activities harder to track
    2. Make sure you are not flashy with the cash, drawing suspicion
    3. Shave the beard, drop the turban, live as western as possible
    4. Do not flash the cash, keep yourself as average joe as possible
    5. Don't use cell phones or be sure to swap out sim cards frequently, seeing as the cops can track the cells

    From what I've read, the skilled terrorists really know how to operate under the radar. The covert communication technology of choice, the fax machine. Handwrite messages in Arabic, fax back and forth. The goverment agencies are short on translators. Even if the messages were sent in the clear, it would take them a long time to figure anything out, assuming it was intercepted. If any kind of codes are used, it takes even more time to figure it out.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by russotto (537200)
      Operating cash-only is a mistake. Instead, the successful terrorist has to separate out his innocuous "cover" activities and his terrorist activities. The cover activities should use a blend of cash and credit, and the terrorist activities should be cash-only. Even better, the cover activities can hide the terrorist stuff. For instance, if the terrorist is making an ANFO bomb, buying a bunch of ammonium nitrate and diesel with cash will certainly set off flags. But if his cover identity is as some sort
  • when I buy hummus, booze, pork, and pitas. Now THAT is a good meal!
  • by Otter (3800) on Friday November 09, 2007 @10:44AM (#21295003) Journal
    I know posting after the first five minutes on any YRO story is pointless, especially on something as inflammatory as this, but since no one will RTFA:

    1) "The brainchild of top FBI counterterrorism officials Phil Mudd and Willie T. Hulon, according to well-informed sources, the project didn't last long. It was torpedoed by the head of the FBI's criminal investigations division, Michael A. Mason, who argued that putting somebody on a terrorist list for what they ate was ridiculous -- and possibly illegal."

    2) "All signs point to the credit card companies providing this data" is a rather generous spin on a theory that the author simply made up.

    3) Do Iranians eat falafel at all? I've never seen it in Persian restaurants. Or do none of you people know the difference between them and Arabs?

    • by Otter (3800)
      Oh, and:

      4) If you're old enough to use a keyboard, you're too old to use the word "yummy".

  • All signs point to the credit card companies providing this data, and not the individual stores

    I'm sure grocery chain loyalty card [wikipedia.org] information would be a rich vein of consumer purchase history to datamine. The only limit to that approach is that such membership is optional, whereas CC is almost mandatory in modern US consumer culture.

    • You can always give them fake info when you sign up for a loyalty card. It's not like they ever check (at least places like Giant Eagle). And if the terrorists were actually smart I'd think they would use cash most of the time. As far as I know, most grocery stores still accept greenbacks.
      • by idontgno (624372)

        Oh, I agree. But you're arguing how real terrorists are cautious enough to avoid such obvious giveaways, whereas the current state of security theater requires much more "willing suspension of disbelief."

        In other words, stop being so logical. You have to clap or Tinkerbell will blow up Western Civilization As We Know It!

  • Every once in a while, buy a little bit of ham.
  • Amazon.com recommends "How to Blow Yourself Up Destroy His Enemy Western Christian Israel Loving Capitalist Apostates And Cash In With A Big Virgin Bonus."

    Picture of Mohammed:

    O O
        |
    \___/

  • This is an April Fools prank, right? I've been asleep for a few months and now the joke's on me. Ha ha! Very funny. It is a joke, right? Right? Please say it's a joke.
  • I went down there on a cheese run and my room mate opted to come along because she needed a few items. She doesn't tend to shop down there as the prices tend to be higher and it's a bit farther from the house than the other grocery stores. So when we get up to the checkout counter my room mate inquires if they have a discount card. The clerk says, in that paranoid tone usually reserved for tinfoil-hat-wearing slashdot posters, "Oh, we don't do that. We don't track our customers." So if you want your derka d
  • Perhaps our government should try more conventional methods of finding wanted terrorists first? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Nawaf-phonebook.jpg [wikipedia.org]
  • "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized." - The Constitution of the United States of America.

    the FBI is violating the constitution.

    We as citizens have a duty to protect the Constitution from all enemies foreign and dom

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