Ridge promises data sharing will be department’s top priority

Homeland Security secretary Tom Ridge this month pledged to coordinate the government’s immigration and law enforcement databases.

The Senate last week confirmed Ridge as HSD’s chief. Earlier this month at his nomination hearing before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, Ridge said that one of the department’s early missions would be to weave together the systems of its 22 component agencies.

Ridge said Congress had given his department the task of merging information gathered by the Immigration and Naturalization Service with that of the FBI and CIA.

“We recognize that we have plenty of information, but we have been unable—not necessarily unwilling—to connect that information,” he said. “One of our highest priorities will be to connect those databases.”

Homeland Security officials have identified a data fusion plan using commercial applications, Ridge said. “There are existing funds in the appropriations to wire us together,” he said, referring to the new department’s IT budget. Ridge acknowledged that he will have to break down stovepipes so “we can get the right information to the right people at the right time.”

Ridge said he expects biometric authentication to be a significant part of the department’s workload, too. “Ultimately, there needs to be an international standard” for biometrics, he said. “I can envision a day in the not-too-distant future that we’ll require biometric identification of people crossing the border, and our friends and allies will require that, too.”

As to other border systems, Ridge said the Coast Guard has developed “a fairly sophisticated system” under its Container Security Initiative to check suspect cargo containers in foreign ports and at sea before they reach U.S. ports. “Our fundamental goal is to make certain that heightened security does not obstruct legitimate trade,” he said.

In a briefing after the hearing, Ridge said Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld has commissioned a team of specialists to work on homeland systems interoperability, as have FBI director Robert S. Mueller III and CIA director George Tenet.

“That collaboration is with an eye to creating an architecture to make information available across agency lines,” he said. “We are not trying to design a brand-new system.”

But some of the administration’s plans for exploiting commercial as well as government databases via data mining have run into opposition in the Senate.

Three senators introduced a bill to impose a moratorium on data-mining activities by the Defense and Homeland Security departments until Congress could review the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Total Information Awareness program.

“The untested and controversial procedure known as data mining is capable of maintaining extensive files containing both public and private records on each and every American,” Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) said in a statement about S 188, the Data Mining Moratorium Act of 2003.

He called unchecked data mining “a dangerous step that threatens one of the values we are fighting for—freedom. The administration has a heavy burden of proof that such extreme measures are necessary.”

Mining moratorium?

Sens. Jon S. Corzine (D-N.J.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) cosponsored S 188.

The American Civil Liberties Union, Americans for Tax Reform, Center for Democracy and Technology, Electronic Privacy Information Center and Free Congress Foundation have voiced support for the moratorium.

Ridge responded indirectly to the data-mining concerns during the hearing. He said in an opening statement that “any new data-mining techniques or programs to enhance information sharing and collecting must and will respect the civil rights and civil liberties guaranteed to the American people under the Constitution.”

Ridge emphasized that any new HSD technologies and programs would not lead to discrimination.

Feingold said the government this year plans to spend more than $137 million to develop data-mining systems. His bill also would require all agencies to report within 90 days after its enactment any data-mining systems they are developing or using, and the steps taken to protect individual privacy.

In the days leading up to Friday’s launch of the department, the Office of Homeland Security’s transition team worked to implement a departmentwide e-mail system and a portal for use by department employees.

The last weeks of transition work have been carried out under a virtual media blackout, with transition staff directed by White House officials to reject all media inquiries.

Transition planners also have set plans for creating a consolidated personnel and financial management system for the new department, cobbled together from the systems already in use by the 22 component agencies.

Mark Forman, associate director for IT and e-government at the Office of Management and Budget, said OMB had set a goal of achieving savings of $85 million by consolidating the personnel systems.

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