DHS exec stresses privacy

Writing protections for civil liberties and civil rights into the business rules of federal information sharing projects is a necessary step to ensure their viability, a top government official said last week.

"We in America have an expectation of personal privacy," said Richard Russell, Homeland Security Department director of information sharing and collaboration. Russell spoke during a panel of the annual Management of Change conference in Philadelphia.

Much of the data government entities need to share is available from commercial sources, Russell noted. Car dealers can reasonably predict when you might buy your next new car and what models you’d probably purchase -- down to the color you’re likely to select -- all based on public information, Russell said.

But unlike car dealers, the government can put people in jail, "and that's where people get very nervous and very concerned," Russell said.

As a result, officials need to make "people understand what we're doing, why we're doing it, and what the legitimate purpose for it is and how we’re protecting that information," Russell said.

Information sharing executives should keep in mind the public perception of government efforts, said George March, Justice Department director of regional information sharing systems and also a panel speaker.

"Wouldn't you think that the name of a project called 'Carnivore' would draw some attention to itself?" he asked, referring to the FBI's heavily pilloried, now-defunct, e-mail surveillance program.

Other challenges to information sharing include getting the right information to the right people, panelists said.

Standards for data interoperability must be established from the bottom up, Russell said. "Standards often come out of consensus. You can often try to impose a standard, but if people don’t use a standard, it's not going to be very useful."

For example, during the initial implementation phase of the executive order that requires DHS, Justice and the intelligence community to share counterterrorist information, agencies decided to adopt an existing standard that the Global Justice XML Data Model uses for the "person" data field.

The process established for hammering out data sharing in implementation of that executive order "is the model of the future," akin to the first model of a car rolling off the assembly line, Russell said.

No single person should be in charge of all the government's information-sharing efforts, March said. "No one person from a particular agency would have the following that’s necessary."

About the Author

David Perera is a special contributor to Defense Systems.

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