- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 6, 2006

The Homeland Security Department is using a dozen different data-mining systems to track terrorist and criminal activity, according to a study released yesterday by the agency’s inspector general.

The technology is also being used to screen airplane cargo, but not to pre-screen passengers — an experiment that was abandoned after strong opposition from the public and members of Congress.

The survey shows that 12 systems are used by Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Office of Intelligence and Analysis (OIA), Secret Service and Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

Data mining uses computers to analyze massive amounts of information to detect illegal activity; Congress set a mandate for the technology to be used by the agency to combat terrorism. The data involved can include personal information such as credit-card purchases, phone numbers, travel, bank or medical records.

A system used to track high-risk shipments through borders can alert inspectors to conduct a search; however, the inspector general said “limitations” in the system can lead to errors.

A freight-assessment system under development by the TSA would pre-screen airline cargo and flag suspect shipment for inspection. However, the report notes that it faces a “unique problem” because the TSA cannot regulate shippers.

“Therefore, the information that TSA has on shippers is provided on a voluntary basis, which limits the amount and type of data that it receives,” the report said.

The technology is used to vet flight crews and pilots, which the report says uses names, Social Security numbers and commercial information to ensure flight attendants and pilots are valid.

Privacy advocates and civil libertarians are critical of the technology and say the database can contain errors.

Melissa Ngo, director of the identification and surveillance project for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, says the technology overwhelms law-enforcement officials with too much information that cannot be verified.

“This is not a thorough investigative technique, but searching for a needle in a haystack when you don’t even know what the needle looks like. We will always support thorough investigations based on real evidence, not rumors, guesses or fishing expeditions,” she said.

Homeland Security officials reviewed the report but did not submit a response.

One data-mining system to detect money laundering and drug trafficking is used by ICE, while a second massive system tracks criminal activity. The third system, much smaller in scale, is used to generate leads into terrorist activity.

One data-mining system shared with the public is aimed at reducing risks to national infrastructure. The voluntary tool allows owners of transportation facilities, maritime facilities and vessels, airports and mass transit to assess their security status.

Homeland Security also uses the systems to ferret out immigration violators, customs fraud and drug smugglers. Another system examines whether documents such as passports and driver’s licenses are fraudulent.

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