Homeland Security Drops Data-Mining Tool

By Michael J. Sniffen
Associated Press
Thursday, September 6, 2007

The Department of Homeland Security 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 was 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 people rather than made-up data for one to two years without meeting privacy requirements. One report also found that analysts found the system time-consuming to use.

DHS spokesman Russ Knocke said yesterday that the ADVISE project was being dropped.

"ADVISE is not expected to be restarted," Knocke said. The Science and Technology directorate of DHS "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 complete. So far, ADVISE has cost $42.5 million and was one of the agency's most ambitious of 12 data-mining projects.

The American Civil Liberties Union yesterday called on DHS to kill a larger system used millions of times daily to screen and conduct risk assessments on all travelers entering the United States.

The ACLU said the department's Automated Targeting System violates Americans' privacy and breaches a congressional ban on using computer programs to assess people who are not on watchlists.

"Congress has banned this type of program with good reason," said Barry Steinhardt, director of the ACLU Technology and Liberty Program. "The judgments about Americans calculated by ATS will be stored for years, and we have no idea how they may be used in the future. The benefit to the government is extremely questionable, but the consequences for Americans are simply dangerous."

ADVISE 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 charts showing relationships and links.

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

"Like other data-mining applications, the ADVISE tool could misidentify or erroneously associate an individual with undesirable activity such as fraud, crime or terrorism," the GAO warned.

Washington Post staff writers Ellen Nakashima and Spencer Hsu contributed to this report.

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