Data mining returns in terror fight

Data mining returns in terror fight

The Homeland Security Department is testing a data-mining program that would try to spot terrorists by combing vast amounts of information about average Americans, such as flight and hotel reservations. The program, similar to a Pentagon program Congress killed in 2003 over concerns about civil liberties, could take effect as early as next year.

But researchers testing the system are likely to already have violated privacy laws by reviewing real information, instead of fake data, according to a source familiar with a congressional investigation into the $42.5 million program.

Bearing the unwieldy name Analysis, Dissemination, Visualization, Insight and Semantic Enhancement (ADVISE), the program is on the cutting edge of analytical technology that applies mathematical algorithms to uncover hidden relationships in data. The idea is to troll a vast sea of information, including audio and visual, and extract suspicious people, places, and other elements based on their links and behavioral patterns.

The privacy violation, described in a Government Accountability Office report due out soon, was one of three by separate government data-mining programs, according to the GAO. “Undoubtedly there are likely to be more,” GAO Comptroller David M. Walker said in a recent congressional hearing.

The violations involved the government’s using citizens’ private information without proper notification to the public and using the data for a purpose different from that originally envisioned, said the source, who declined to be identified because the report is not yet public.

The issue lies at the heart of the debate over whether pattern-based data mining – or searching for bad guys without a known suspect – can succeed without invading people’s privacy and violating their civil liberties.

Homeland Security spokesman Larry Orluskie said officials had not yet read the GAO report and could not comment.

Another Homeland Security official who helped develop ADVISE said it was tested on only “synthetic” data, which he described as “real data” made anonymous so it could not be traced back to people.

The system has been tested in four Homeland Security pilot programs, including one at the Office of Intelligence and Analysis, to help analysts more effectively sift through mounds of intelligence reports and documents. In a pilot program at a government lab in Livermore, Calif., that assessed foreign and domestic terror groups’ ability to develop weapons of mass destruction, ADVISE tools were found “worthy of further development,” department spokesman Christopher Kelly said.

Homeland Security is completing reports on the privacy implications of all four pilot programs. Such assessments are required on any government technology program that collects people’s personally identifiable information, according to department guidelines.

ADVISE has progressed further than the program Congress killed in 2003, Total Information Awareness, which was being developed at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Yet it was partly ADVISE’s resemblance to Total Information Awareness that led lawmakers last year to ask that the GAO review the program. Although Total Information Awareness never got beyond an early research phase, unspecified subcomponents of that program were allowed to be funded under the Pentagon’s classified budget.

The Disruptive Technology Office, a research arm of the intelligence community, is working on another program that would sift through massive amounts of data, such as intelligence reports and communications records, to detect hidden patterns. The program focuses on foreigners. Officials declined to elaborate because it is classified.

Officials at the office of the director of national intelligence stressed that pattern-analysis research remained largely theoretical. The more effective approach, they said, is link analysis, or looking for bad guys based on associations with known suspects. They said that they seek to guard Americans’ privacy, focusing on synthetic and foreigners’ data. Information on Americans must be relevant to the mission, they said.

Some lawmakers are demanding greater program disclosure. A bipartisan bill cosponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D., Vt.) would require the Bush administration to report to Congress the extent of its data-mining programs.

Information from:

Share this post