GAO: DHS should resolve issues with satellite program

The Government Accountability Office has found that the Homeland Security Department has not fully dealt with all the legal, privacy and civil liberties issues associated with its program to create a clearinghouse for civilian agencies to get intelligence satellite imagery.

According to the program’s charter, the office is to be a multiagency effort led by DHS that will facilitate access to classified geospatial data by users in the civil, homeland security and law enforcement communities. The office will not be used to intercept communications.

In April, DHS certified the program as compliant with all existing applicable laws, privacy and civil liberties standards. The certification and the GAO’s review of the certification was required by Congress before the department could spend money on the National Applications Office (NAO) program.

GAO’s evaluation of DHS’ certification of the program, released to congressional staff members in September and to the public on Nov. 6, said DHS has not fully justified its certification that the NAO complies with applicable laws and some areas of potential concern regarding civil liberties and civil rights remain unaddressed.

The program’s advocates say the NAO's facilitation of sharing geospatial data could greatly improve emergency response, homeland security and law enforcement efforts. However, the program has been controversial and some lawmakers have pressed for a hold on the program until legal issues are worked out. Civil liberties advocates have also expressed concerns about the program’s privacy and legal implications.

Subsequently, the appropriations law that funds DHS for fiscal 2009 requires DHS to certify the program as lawful in fiscal 2009 and the GAO to once again review that certification.

However, the funding measure does permit NAO to conduct activities which are “substantially similar” to those of NAO’s predecessor, the Civil Applications Committee. That committee coordinated the use of the overhead for imagery for civilian purposes. 

The potential use of the program for law enforcement purposes has been a particular sticking point. GAO says that work has begun to deal with the legal and policy issues associated with law enforcement uses and DHS now plans to recertify the NAO’s compliance with all laws before accepting requests for geospatial data for law enforcement purposes.

GAO said DHS should “more fully justify” the department’s certification of the program by:

• Establishing clear definitions for law enforcement and homeland security requests.

• Defining procedures for developing and approving requests for all categories of classified satellite information.

• Creating procedures for monitoring the legal review process.

• Ensuring that specific privacy controls are established in the program's standard operating procedures.

• Establishing procedures to deal with civil liberties issues related to the potential for improper use or retention of the imagery.

In response, a DHS official told GAO the department believed definitions for the law enforcement and homeland security domains “are sufficiently clear for the NAO to operate in an effective and lawful manner.” The official also said DHS was taking several steps to incorporate the GAO’s recommendations on operational processes and procedures.

However, the official also said DHS also believes some of the matters addressed in the report were beyond the scope of what the GAO was asked to study.

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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