DHS privacy office eyes tech

Homeland Security Department's Report to Congress

Homeland Security Department officials today released DHS' first annual privacy report to Congress, outlining work done in numerous areas, including technology.

A primary goal of the department's privacy office, which is the first Congressionally mandated one for a federal agency, is ensuring that technologies sustain "privacy protections relating to the use, collection, and disclosure of personal information," according to the 112-page report.

The office, led by Nuala O'Connor Kelly, chief privacy officer, is examining use of biometric technology, some of which is used in the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program for tracking foreign visitors. Kelly's organization is also looking at radio frequency identification devices, such as those being tested in two airports to track baggage through the security process.

DHS privacy personnel are also examining data mining, which "has many connotations, not all of which are positive," the report said. Officials want to build a consensus for a common definition of data mining as well as an appropriate policy for using public and private databases.

Other technology for review include distributed data environments — where data is shared with users, but remains with the owner — and the Multi-State Antiterrorist Information Exchange, or MATRIX, a network of law enforcement databases that has received some departmental funds.

The privacy office is also considering the effect of emerging technologies, including geospatial information systems and services, unmanned aerial vehicles, and ubiquitous sensor networks, which may potentially raise separate privacy protection concerns, according to the report.

"Protecting the privacy of individuals and also the homeland is not difficult when you place a high priority on both," Secretary Tom Ridge, said in a statement. "It is personally satisfying to see the evolving sensitivity and support toward privacy protection and information access throughout the organization. Privacy protection is every employee's responsibility, and I believe we are sending that message clearly and effectively."

The report covers the time period from April 2003 to June 2004.

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