Homeland Security Faces Privacy, Tech Hurdles

Department's construction hampered by lack of interoperability among agencies' systems and task of deciding how to consolidate, handle and secure sensitive data.

NEW YORK—The federal governments effort to integrate 22 different organizations into the new Department of Homeland Security faces major technological, privacy and security hurdles, a Bush administration official said Wednesday.

The construction of the new department is being slowed by a lack of interoperability among agencies systems and the complex task of deciding how the department will consolidate, handle and secure sensitive data, said Robert Shepherd, the Office of Homeland Securitys director of information integration, who gave the keynote speech at the Infosecurity show here.

"We need to be very careful on how we define appropriate information and appropriate people," Shepherd said. "The privacy implications [of the integration] are enormous. We dont want to become a case study in business schools on how not to do this."

Private citizens and corporations are justified in wondering whether all of the sensitive data theyve shared with one agency will suddenly become available to other groups within Homeland Security, Shepherd said. But, officials have made the protection of such data a major priority during the integration effort.

"We want to balance the homeland security concerns with the privacy concerns," he said.

Shepherd and his team are aiming to have the departments headquarters up and running by the end of February. But with nearly two dozen individual agencies bringing hundreds of separate databases to the organization, the integration effort is proving a daunting task.

"Most of the major data sources were putting together cant talk to each other. Interoperability is a big issue," Shepherd said. "The databases arent mutually accessible. If theres a Customs officer checking someone or a police officer who needs to find out whether someone theyve stopped is on a watch list, they need that information immediately. Getting it a day or three days later makes it almost useless."

Even after the department is operational, the process of integrating the various systems and databases will continue unabated.

"This is going to be a process thats continuous and never ending," Shepherd said.