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DHS halts anti-terror data-mining program

The Homeland Security Department has given up on one of its broadest anti-terrorism data-mining tools after investigators found it was tested with information about real people without the required privacy safeguards.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Homeland Security Department has given up on one of its broadest anti-terrorism data-mining tools after investigators found it was tested with information about real people without the required privacy safeguards.

Known as ADVISE and begun in 2003, the Analysis, Dissemination, Visualization, Insight and Semantic Enhancement program was developed by the department and the Lawrence Livermore and Pacific Northwest national laboratories for use by many DHS components, including immigration, customs, border protection, biological defense and its intelligence office.

Testing of the program had been quietly suspended in March after questions arose over its compliance with privacy rules. Since then two internal Homeland Security reports found that tests had used live data about real people rather than made-up data for one to two years without meeting privacy requirements; one report also found that department analysts found the system time-consuming to use.

In response to questions from The Associated Press, DHS spokesman Russ Knocke said Wednesday the project was being dropped entirely.

“ADVISE is not expected to be restarted,” Knocke said. DHS’ Science and Technology directorate “determined that new commercial products now offer similar functionality while costing significantly less to maintain than ADVISE.”

Earlier, the department had said that testing would resume once the appropriate privacy analyses and public notices were completed.

So far, ADVISE has cost $42 million and was one of the most ambitious of 12 data-mining projects in the agency.

System designed to find links
A DHS research official said in 2004 that it was to be capable of ingesting one billion pieces per hour of structured information, such as databases of cargo shippers, and one million pieces per hour of unstructured text, such as government intelligence reports.

The system was supposed to identify links between particular pieces of information in this sea of data that could otherwise go unnoticed. And it would display the results in graphic form — charts showing relationships and links.

A report by Congress’ Government Accountability Office cautioned last March that the program should complete privacy analyses and notify the public of how individuals’ data would be verified, used and protected before ADVISE was implemented.

Then in separate reports released without fanfare in July and August, the department’s inspector general and its privacy office concluded that between 2004 and 2007, three pilot tests of ADVISE used personally identifiable information without first completing required privacy impact analyses.

This is the second such error at DHS. The Secure Flight program to screen domestic air travelers was barred from implementation by Congress after it was learned that it acquired live data for testing rather than using made-up data. That program, however, is going into testing this fall having issued the required privacy impact assessment and dropping the use of commercial data, such as people’s credit card histories.

Personal data used
Among the data sets the privacy office found had been plugged into various ADVISE pilot projects were:

  • The no-fly list of people barred from domestic air travel and the list of people who require special inspections before flying.
  • More than 3.6 million shipping records from a commercial data provider with names of cargo shippers and consignees.
  • Terrorist Screening Center lists of people who attempted to cross the U.S.-Canadian border at a port-of-entry.
  • Classified intelligence reports about groups and individuals involved in illicit traffic in weapons of mass effect.
  • Lists of foreign exchange students, immigrants under investigation, and people from special interest countries who must register with DHS when entering or leaving this country.
  • Lists of people thought to have overstayed their visas.

Although Knocke said ADVISE “was never used in an operational environment” and DHS had assured Congress in 2006 the system was not operational, the inspector general found that “on at least one occasion, the data was used to produce classified intelligence information.”

At the All Weapons of Mass Effect project at Lawrence Livermore, analyst used the pilot system “to uncover previously unknown connections between organized crime and terrorism,” the IG found in a July report quietly made public last month.