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US suspends vast ADVISE data-sifting system

The pilot programs ignored privacy safeguards, says a recent Homeland Security report.

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•From late 2004 to mid-2006, three ADVISE pilot programs – one focused on biological threats, another on weapons of mass destruction, and a third classified program to identify emerging threats – were not mere test beds working out technical bugs. Instead, they were "operational" and used "personally identifiable" data, without having conducted any privacy-risk assessments.

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•All three pilot programs were quietly halted in March pending formal privacy impact assessments on the vulnerability of personal data. A privacy impact assessment is a type of information audit that ensures that government is only using personal information when it is necessary and lawful to be revealed.

•While submissions were made to begin the process, full-blown "privacy impact assessments" of the three programs did not begin until early 2007 – about two years after they became operational and began hunting terrorists, the OIG's office reported. It also said the March shutdown to assess privacy implications has damaged ADVISE's prospects, giving rise to skepticism within DHS about the utility and cost of the program and leaving it "at risk" of cancellation by 2008.

Failure to ensure data privacy is a problem that has torpedoed other counterterror programs, says Lee Tien, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy advocacy group..

"The OIG's report clearly shows major breakdowns in the system we're depending on to protect people's private data," says Mr. Tien. "Whatever the data ADVISE used, the outputs are clearly important for people's privacy. The biodefense pilot program, for instance, presumably involves information about people's medical condition and emergency-room reporting."

Confusion within department's ranks

DHS's delay in addressing data privacy appears to be due to confusion and miscommunication about privacy requirements by ADVISE program managers and DHS's privacy office, amid the rush to get a system running, the OIG says.

For example, ADVISE program managers told OIG investigators they didn't realize privacy assessments were required for a system still in development. At that stage, the system was just a processing tool without data, they argued – a view agreed to by the DHS privacy office.

Indeed, the privacy office mentions the ADVISE system only once, in a footnote, in its mandatory report last summer to Congress on data-mining activities. Until the "ADVISE tool" had data attached to it, it was not a data-mining program needing privacy review, the office reported.

Unknown to the privacy office, the ADVISE pilot programs had been operational and using personal data for about 18 months before the privacy office made that report to Congress, the OIG found.

DHS has not reported how much and what type of personal information was used. One senior DHS official, who agreed to speak only on condition of anonymity, says of the personally identifiable data used by ADVISE: "We have no idea what information or how much was used."

Larry Orluskie, a spokesman for the DHS science and technology directorate, says a DHS privacy office review of ADVISE last month corroborates the OIG finding that ADVISE "was maybe too zealous in its testing," he says.

Even so, he says, the ADVISE system is back on track, though he is unsure if the privacy assessment was complete or if operations had resumed. A request for interviews with Undersecretary Cohen or other ADVISE officials went unanswered.

One conclusion, however, is that the privacy failure has cost ADVISE dearly. Despite some early successes – ADVISE's weapons of mass destruction pilot program identified a link between organized crime and terrorism – the failure to abide by privacy laws and costs of compliance have now reduced interest within DHS in ADVISE, the OIG reports.