January 5, 2004

Pentagon failed to study privacy issues in data-mining effort, IG says

By William New, National Journal's Technology Daily

A December report by the Defense Department's independent watchdog on the now-defunct Terrorism Information Awareness (TIA) data-mining project has begun the new year with a discussion of privacy issues.

The report said the TIA technology once being developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) could have been valuable against terrorism but would have required specific steps to address privacy concerns.

"A review of the TIA program ... showed that although the TIA technology could prove valuable in combating terrorism, DARPA could have better addressed the sensitivity of the technology to minimize the possibility of any governmental abuse of power," the Dec. 12 report of Defense's inspector general said. "And [it] could have assisted in the successful transition of the technology into the operational environment."

The report recommended that the Defense undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, in coordination with DARPA's director, assess the privacy impact "before TIA-type technology research continues." The report also called for a "privacy ombudsman or equivalent official" specifically for the development of TIA-type technology.

In the report, while the IG's office agreed that DARPA could not be required to assess potential privacy impacts, the office also said it would be "prudent" for DARPA to do so.

Last summer, Congress blocked funding for TIA research aimed at mining commercial databases for information on potential terrorists, but work is continuing on similar technologies. Privacy advocates who are following those developments expressed satisfaction with the inspector general's view on the technologies.

"I think they struck the right note," said Steven Aftergood, director of the project on government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. "They homed in on the key issue, namely the department's handling of privacy issues, and said they didn't do everything they could and should have done."

"Like most technologies, it is politically and morally neutral," Aftergood said. Instead, it was aimed at addressing certain objectives. But he added that the question is: "Under what conditions is this technology appropriate? I think the IG report points to an answer."

David Sobel, general counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said the criticism that privacy concerns were not adequately addressed in the development of TIA is "something we're seeing more and more." He also said calls for privacy-impact statements are increasing. He cited the lack of such a statement from the Homeland Security Department for a passenger-screening program for airlines after two years of development.

The IG report is not the final word on TIA, Sobel noted. A congressionally mandated technology and privacy advisory group examining the project is preparing a report that is "likely to be more significant," he said.

The IG report was sparked by concerns raised in late 2002 by Sens. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Chuck Hagel, R-Neb.

"I think it reflects well on the IG that it took a position somewhat at odds with DARPA's," Aftergood said. "It's a gentle rebuke and I think it's appropriate."