Outsourcing Total Information Awareness?

GovExec.com, always a good source of inside-DHS information shares this tidbit from a closed-door information security meeting: Chertoff is thinking about Outsourcing Total Information Awareness.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff this week floated an idea to start a nonprofit group that would collect information on private citizens, flag suspicious activity, and send names of suspicious people to his department.

If you discount the creepy Big Brother feeling and the unpleasant legacy of close industry-government cooperation on internal security matters, you still end up with an idea that’s really quite bad. These may be some of the reasons why the Secretary doesn’t pursue the idea.

First, Chertoff suggested this arrangement specifically so that DHS can get around legal restrictions on government collecting information on private citizens. DHS’ press secretary admitted as much when he said “he was discussing, in general terms, the importance of this issue of balancing security and privacy.” Well, yes: he was suggesting ways of using lax private-sector privacy laws to agregate information that could not be done legally by the Department. I’m of the opinion that government ought to change laws that are problematic, not circumvent them with subcontractors.

Second, we have to wonder what exactly the Department thinks it’s going to do with a list of names of “suspicious people”. Add them to the No-Fly list? Make them the subject of computer BOLO (“Be On Look Out”) records? Assign an agent to each name and conduct an investigation? Manually perform queries on each name to further investigate the subjects ? I’d place bets the first two are likely and the second two won’t happen. So what we get is another database of names of people who will be inconvenienced which is unreliable, uncorroborated and about which no information is available (e.g “Joe Smith is a suspected terrorist affiliate” with no further data) and no agency is responsible.

My experience with DHS’ data-mining so far is that it pumps out W.L.N. (Whole Lotta Nothing). It is immediately evident why the “suspect” was chosen — like a muslim name — and immediately evident why the suspicion is without reason (e.g. won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry). When data-mining for terrorists is turning up 65-year old Anglo South African ladies named Pricilla, you need to work on your technique, that’s all I’m saying.