Homeland Security and Database 101

Late-night talk-show hosts and the foreign press were yukking it up when the story broke last month about the Department of Homeland Security’s database of potential terrorist targets in the U.S. The Statue of Liberty isn’t on the list of “critical infrastructure and key resources” — but the Kangaroo Conservation Center in Dawsonville, GA, is. The Empire State Building is missing, but Old MacDonald’s Petting Zoo in Woodville, AL, is there.

I’d bet, though, that instead of laughing, more than a few direct marketers were nodding with a combination of resignation and recognition. Because it seems that the government has fallen victim to several all-too-common database marketing errors.

For one thing, Homeland Security ignored the GIGO tenet: garbage in, garbage out. The department appeared to have simply dumped the data it was given into its database and hoped for the best.

Homeland Security apparently failed, in fact, to vet the accuracy and quality of the data. Each state and territory was responsible for submitting what it considered national icons and critical assets, but they didn’t have universal, well-defined criteria to follow. According to the June report by the department’s Office of the Inspector General, “Progress in Developing the National Asset Database” (www.dhs.gov/interweb/assetlibrary/OIG_06-40_Jun06.pdf), “In deciding which assets to submit, states had considerable latitude in interpreting what DHS meant by a nationally critical asset.” So what Montana considered a key resource could, and did, differ from what Massachusetts considered a key resource. The result: The state with the most assets listed in the database, is Indiana with 8,591. In contrast, New York submitted 5,687 potential terrorist targets and California a relatively scant 3,212.

“It was not unusual for states to send multiple submissions…and for the content of their responses to vary,” the report continues. California listed the Bay Area Regional Transit (BART) system as one asset; New York cited each of its transit stations as an individual asset. What’s more, only two of the 56 states and territories met the deadline for submitting their data.

Then there’s the lack of prioritization or ranking for the 77,069 assets. There are no deciles of the most important to least important sites, or of the most vulnerable to least vulnerable — sort of the antiterrorism version of recency/frequency/monetary value. Homeland Security is said to be working on this sort of prioritization. In the meantime, though, it used the faulty output from its faulty input to allocate security resources.

I’m not writing this to point fingers but rather as a cautionary tale, something along the lines of, There but for the grace of God goes my database.

Then again, when a cataloger makes a major data collection or analysis error, the worst thing that could happen is an unprofitable mailing. And yes, that can be very bad indeed, depending on the breadth of the mailing and the depth of the losses. But that’s still nowhere near as horrendous as the worst-case scenario involving the Homeland Security database’s flaws.

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