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Homeland Security Criticized For Potential Privacy Risks

Poor oversight of data mining used in counterterrorism initiatives could leave personal information vulnerable, finds GAO report.

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The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) does not adequately review the privacy and effectiveness of data-mining systems it uses in counterterrorism efforts, possibly putting personal information at risk, according to a government watchdog agency.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) evaluated six data-mining systems from the DHS and three of its component organizations--the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration--and found that none of them had an effective framework in place for proper oversight of the systems, according to a new report by the agency.

Specifically, the GAO found that none of the systems "performed all of the key activities associated with an effective evaluation framework," according to the report.

[DHS is moving aggressively to implement cloud computing. Learn more about its plans: Homeland Security Plans 12 Cloud Services.]

While four of the programs performed most of the requirements for evaluating privacy, only one performed most of those related to executive review and approval, according to the GAO. This inconsistency puts privacy-related information at risk and also affects the effectiveness of the programs themselves, the agency found.

One system in particular--the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Pattern Analysis and Information Collection (ICEPIC)--was found to be especially troublesome because it was given a privacy impact assessment before the system was even completed, according to the GAO.

Officials developed their assessment of ICEPIC before a component called the law Enforcement Information Sharing Service--which allows people's personal information to be shared outside the agency--was put in place, according to the GAO. As a result, multiple law-enforcement agencies have access to people's personal information, but it's not being reported or disclosed, which could put that information at risk.

In the DHS' defense, the GAO said that officials are working to revise the privacy assessment plan to take into account the feature, but that plan is not yet complete.

As one of several recommendations in the report, the GAO advised the DHS to develop "requirements for providing additional scrutiny of privacy protections for the sensitive information systems that are not transparent to the public through privacy impact assessments."

The DHS did not respond immediately to request for comment about the report Monday.

The federal government has ramped up its data-mining efforts recently to improve how it uses the tool, particularly in its review of intelligence information to thwart terrorist activities. The National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), for example, is developing software called DataSphere that can analyze terrorists' communications networks and travel activities to help discover relationships among them.

Data mining and analytics are also are key to efforts the feds are taking to cut costs, according to the Obama administration's Campaign to Cut Waste. Officials believe that by examining and analyzing existing data they can decide how to prioritize their investments.

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