Facing criticism over its privacy practices, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has opted to abandon a massive new data-mining project intended to flag patterns and pinpoint relationships that indicate terrorist threats.
According to an Associated Press report, the department "quietly" suspended a program known as ADVISE (Analysis, Dissemination, Visualization, Insight, and Semantic Enhancement) after federal government auditors dogging the agency for failing to assess the privacy risks associated with the scheme. ADVISE was one of a dozen data-mining projects under way at Homeland Security, according to the AP report.
Homeland Security's own inspector general and Privacy Office went on to publish their own reports this summer, and they were no less damning. They concluded the agency had used personally identifiable data about real people--gleaned, for instance, from the no-fly list and from a database of foreign students--in test runs of some of the ADVISE systems without first doing a full assessment of the privacy impact of those activities. The Privacy Office report (PDF) suggested using "synthetic" data in the future instead.
The department made a similar mistake with its so-called Secure Flight program, when it failed to report exactly how and why it collected commercial personal data on nearly 250,000 airline passengers. Under pressure from privacy advocates, the feds recently proposed overhauling that program, which is designed to screen travelers against terrorist watch lists.
Just because Homeland Security is scrapping development of ADVISE doesn't mean it plans to abandon the information-sifting tactic. In fact, it's apparently already contemplating a replacement. A Homeland Security spokesman told the AP reporter that the department's Science and Technology Directorate, which oversaw the project, "determined that new commercial products now offer similar functionality while costing significantly less to maintain than ADVISE."
Since 2003, the department has spent approximately $40 million to develop ADVISE, which it planned to roll out in six phases. Homeland Security assured members of Congress last year that the project was never used in real operations and was still in testing mode. But according to the department's inspector general report, "on at least one occasion, the data was used to produce classified intelligence information."