Critical Read

DHS to expedite data scans for foreign fighters

Shutterstock image: cyber defense.

What: A privacy impact assessment by the Department of Homeland Security explaining why DHS is looking to forego some automated protections in its data framework to quickly tag what it says is a fast-moving threat from growing ranks of sympathizers looking to help foreign terror groups.

Why: DHS said in the PIA issued April 15 that it has a critical need to execute classified queries on its unclassified big data pool to identify potentially thousands of individuals that might be looking to support terrorist activities of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al-Nusrah Front, affiliated offshoots of those groups, or individuals seeking to join the Syria-Iraq conflict.

The need to quickly identify those labeled as "foreign fighters" by the media, said the PIA, has outpaced the processes DHS has set up to protect its big data operations.

DHS said it has been diligently establishing an interactive development process for its big data framework since 2013 using an iterative development process.

But the department said it needs a quicker, more nimble short-term ability to perform classified searches of unclassified data. The speedier capabilities would allow it to better identify and track foreign fighters from or transiting the United States.

DHS called the type of comparison a longstanding mission need, but the specific threat from foreign fighters moving into or through the U.S. has forced its hand in pursuing it. Initially, DHS said the searches would be done manually, and later would be automated.

The PIA said the data transfer process will tap datasets owned by Customs and Border Protection and the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis.

Searches of the data will be done based on intelligence or law enforcement information for counterterrorism functions, including I&A and CBP intelligence analysis and identification of individuals for additional scrutiny by CBP.

Once on the classified network, DHS said the data will be accessed only by I&A intelligence analysts and support staff, as well as CBP personnel conducting targeting and intelligence analysis and others on a limited bases, such as attorneys providing legal advice.

Verbatim: "Expediting the ability to perform classified searches of DHS’s unclassified data sets supports DHS’s efforts to counter the threat posed by foreign fighters by allowing DHS to use the information it receives from U.S. Government or foreign government partners -- much of which may be classified -- to identify high risk individuals traveling to, through or from the United States."

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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