Intelligence Gap: How a Chinese National Gained Access to Arizona’s Terror Center

Andrew Becker, CIR and Ryan Gabrielson, ProPublica report:

LIZHONG FAN’S DESK WAS AMONG A CROWD of cubicles at the Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center in Phoenix. For five months in 2007, the Chinese national and computer programmer opened his laptop and enjoyed access to a wide range of sensitive information, including the Arizona driver’s license database, other law enforcement databases, and potentially a roster of intelligence analysts and investigators.

The facility had been set up by state and local authorities in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks, and so, out of concerns about security, Fan had been assigned a team of minders to watch him nearly every moment inside the center. Fan, hired as a contract employee specializing in facial recognition technology, was even accompanied to the bathroom.

However, no one stood in Fan’s way when he packed his equipment one day in early June 2007, then returned home to Beijing.

There’s a lot that remains mysterious about Fan’s brief tenure as a computer programmer at the Arizona counterterrorism center. No one has explained why Arizona law enforcement officials gave a Chinese national access to such protected information. Nor has anyone said whether Fan copied any of the potentially sensitive materials he had access to.

But the people responsible for hiring Fan say one thing is clear: The privacy of as many as 5 million Arizona residents and other citizens has been exposed. Fan, they said, was authorized to use the state’s driver’s license database as part of his work on a facial recognition technology. He often took that material home, and they fear he took it back to China.

Read more on There’s a lot of “should this breach have been disclosed” discussion in the article, which is somewhat speculative, perhaps, because they don’t know what, if anything, he ever copied or took with him. If you believe that “when in doubt, disclose,” fine, but many state laws do not require notification if the entity has no effing clue whether a breach has occurred or not.

The Fan case predated the same type of problem the government experienced with Edward Snowden – someone with access was inadequate monitored and there were insufficient technical safeguards to prevent and log attempts to copy files.

Nor have we found out what the government may have learned:

Seven years after the potential breach, then, it is still unclear how closely law enforcement looked into the incident or what steps, if any, it took as a result. The FBI opened a probe shortly after Fan’s disappearance, according to records and a former federal investigator, but the bureau has never made its findings public.

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