Dec 01 2015

Homeland Security’s Privacy Push

DHS understands your data is sensitive and wants to make sure it’s only used when absolutely necessary.

Most Americans may not associate the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) with privacy, but the government’s third-largest department takes great steps to protect all of the data it collects.

In an interview with MeriTalk at the company's Big Data Brainstorm, Karen Neuman, the department’s chief privacy officer, said that the DHS tries to balance keeping information safe with making it easily accessible to officers and analysts. That is no small task, considering the department authenticates more than 2 million people per day, whether they are flying into, out of or over the U.S.

To give analysts the functionality they need, Neuman said the department created a data framework. At its core, it allows users to search multiple department databases from a single view, as opposed to going from system to system. That capability allows more than 240,000 DHS employees to work at a fast pace, as the timing of their work can sometimes be crucial.

Neuman said analysts do not have time to go to multiple screens for every traveler, but "they need a highly operational system.”

With that much data about people, Neuman admits there are many opportunities for data to be compromised. That’s where her office comes in: It ensures that the personal information the department’s seven agencies collect remains private.

A big part of the data framework and privacy is Neptune, a pilot program that Neuman described as a “data lake.” It includes all of the department’s unclassified data and features a dense tagging system that gives access to data just to the people who need it at the times that they need it.

From the DHS website:

The Neptune system is designed to ingest authoritative unclassified data sets of person-centric identity information that DHS gathers during its routine interactions with the public for the purpose of tagging the data and providing the tagged data to authorized systems. Neptune tags the data by assigning both tag names and values to all of the ingested information. During the first sixty to ninety days, the Neptune Pilot will tag and share data with two different systems: the Common Entity Index Prototype (CEI Prototype) and the Cerberus Pilot.

Neuman said projects like Neptune are an area where technology gives privacy back to citizens. She told MeriTalk that although data about people is continually collected, thanks to modern technology, the DHS system ensures that only authorized people use it and that the information remains up to date.

Neuman said the department doesn’t want people making decisions on data that is no longer valid and understand that people are sensitive about their information, but we want them to trust that we only use their data where necessary by those that truly need it.”