DHS will use new privacy protection principles in research

The Homeland Security Department today announced several new privacy protection principles that DHS’ Science and Technology Directorate will use when conducting new research. The standards were announced as part of DHS’ 2008 report on its data-mining activities.

DHS was required to produce the annual data-mining report by an anti-terrorism law passed in 2007 and the department identified three activities which it says qualify as data-mining activities under Congress’ definition.

Some of the principles the department will now use include:

  • Properly assessing the privacy effect of new programs.
  • Clearly stating and documenting a project's purpose through an internal/external project review process.
  • Trying to only use personally identifiable information that is reasonably considered accurate and appropriate for its documented purpose and attempting to use as little of that data as possible.
  • Developing and administering a redress program.
  • Providing training.

The privacy office said a public workshop prompted it to begin working with DHS’ Science and Technology Directorate on the series of principles for protecting privacy in research activities whether they are classified as data mining or not.

“A primary goal of the principles is to preclude the possibility that research projects could have a negative impact on privacy,” the report said. “This requires not only a tightly focused purpose for research, but also reasonable limits on the types of data used, and on how the data is used, consistent with a project’s purpose.”

The report said data mining as defined by Congress is limited to certain pattern-based electronic searches to identify predictive patterns or anomalies that indicate terrorist or criminal activity. In addition, DHS’ report added research in electronic databases that produce only a summary of historical trends are not considered data mining under the law.

The report also identified three DHS activities considered data mining under lawmakers’ definition:
  • U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Automated Targeting System that is meant to target, identify and preventing potential terrorists and terrorist weapons from entering the United States.
  • An Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s system that supports ICE's investigations of trade-based money laundering, contraband smuggling, trade fraud, and other import/export crimes.
  • The Transportation Security Administration’s Freight Assessment System, a risk assessment tool meant to identify cargo that may pose a heightened risk to passenger aircraft.

The privacy office said none of those programs make unevaluated automated decisions about individuals solely on the basis of data-mining results and DHS employees conduct investigations to verify -- or disprove -- the results of data mining.

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.


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