Arrow-right Camera
News >  Nation/World

Data mining program raises concerns

WASHINGTON – The Department of Homeland Security is testing a data-mining program that would attempt to spot terrorists by combing vast amounts of information about average Americans, such as flight and hotel reservations. Similar to a Pentagon program killed by Congress in 2003 over concerns about civil liberties, the new program could take effect as soon 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 use of citizens’ private information without proper notification to the public and using the data for a purpose different than 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 (DHS) spokesman Larry Orluskie said officials had not yet read the GAO report and could not comment.

Another DHS official who helped develop ADVISE said the program 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 DHS 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 another pilot at a government laboratory 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,” DHS spokesman Christopher Kelly said.

The DHS 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 DHS guidelines.

The DHS official who worked on ADVISE said it can be used for a range of purposes. An analyst might want, say, to study the patterns of behavior of the Washington area sniper and look for similar patterns elsewhere, he said. The bottom line is to help make analysts more effective at detecting terrorist intent.