GAO, DHS disagree on need for privacy study

GAO Report

The Homeland Security Department and the Government Accountability Office disagree on whether a privacy impact assessment is needed for an emerging DHS data-mining program.

The program in question is called Analysis, Dissemination, Visualization, Insight and Semantic Enhancement. ADVISE is intended to help DHS analysts sift through large amounts of information and identify patterns or relationships that could indicate potential threats, according to GAO. The software creates "semantic graphs," or visual representations that make such links readily apparent.

DHS has added security controls to the system, but it hasn’t yet assessed the potential for the program to misidentify individuals or wrongfully link people to terrorism, GAO said in its report to the House Appropriations Committee.

DHS officials have not overlooked the requirement for a privacy assessment, according to GAO. Instead, they have determined that no such study was needed.

In response to GAO, Steven Pecinovsky, director of the DHS’ GAO/inspector general’s office liaison office, noted that ADVISE is simply a set of generic IT tools that does not itself collect or use any data. The DHS Privacy Impact Assessment process is designed for operational systems and is not well-suited to open-ended toolsets such as ADVISE, he wrote.

He added that DHS was developing a Privacy Technology Implementation Guide that would be more adaptable to technology frameworks like ADVISE.

GAO takes a different view, however. The software's intended uses include applications involving personal data and the E-Government Act and related guidance emphasizes the need to assess the privacy risks early in the development of such systems.

Unless such a study is done now, DHS runs the risk of having systems developed and implemented using ADVISE tools and that do contain personal information. That would require costly retrofitting later on to add the necessary controls.

About the Author

Brian Robinson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore.

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