Who's Watching the Watchers?

Discussion in 'Marijuana News' started by Superjoint, May 22, 2003.

  1. Data-mining proposals scrutinized to balance privacy, security.

    Elsa Wenzel, Medill News Service
    Tuesday, May 20, 2003

    WASHINGTON -- Congress should keep close tabs on new data-mining tools that the government is building for its war on terrorism, urged civil-liberties, legal, and security experts at a House subcommittee hearing.

    New databases might be necessary to expose terrorists' plans, but they should not violate Constitutional and privacy rights, they said.

    "A citizen must have the right to see what data is held about him or her, and they must have the right to correct errors in those data," agreed Rep. William Clay, a Missouri Democrat and the ranking minority member of the House Committee on Government Reform's Subcommittee on Technology, Information Policy, and Intergovernmental Relations.

    But others indicated they are willing to forego some rights to ensure security, or to broaden use of the technology to help with other crime-fighting efforts.

    Amassing Data
    Proposals for two controversial government databases went before the subcommittee Tuesday in the second of two hearings. The agencies developing the databases described and defended their plans at the first hearing, in early May.

    The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which created the predecessor of the Internet, is developing the Total Information Awareness database. Just renamed Terrorist Information Awareness, it draws on a cross-section of school, financial, travel, and medical records, looking for trends and patterns that may indicate terrorist activity.

    The Computer-Assisted Passenger Prescreening System II (CAPPS II) is being developed by the Transportation Security Administration, and is intended to be used for determining whether people should be allowed to fly. It would analyze airline passengers' names, addresses, birthdays, and phone numbers for use in preflight screenings.

    Potentially, CAPPS II could reduce the need for onsite searches of travelers and their bags, Clay noted. He suggests more intrusive personal searches may be necessary without use of such databases.

    But Clay also said the agencies developing these systems are drawing the curtains around their data-mining projects to shut out the public.

    "The agencies involved in data mining are trying to skirt the Privacy Act by claiming that they hold no data," said Clay. Instead, they use private companies to maintain and sift through the data, he said.

    "Technically, that gets them out from under the Privacy Act," he said. "Ethically, it does not."

    How Much Sharing?
    Data mining is a useful tool for security, and the more useful the more widely the data is shared, said proponents.

    Crime fighters at local and federal levels need to connect the dots between the information they glean, said John Cohen, chief executive officer of PSComm, a technology and security firm that has homeland security contracts. Public health, social service, emergency management, and transportation agencies also need to be part of the information-sharing network, Cohen said.

    Without the databases, warrants languish on paper, judges rely on old records to sentence criminals, and local police can't discover if a suspect is wanted in the next state, Cohen said.

    The Justice Department has maintained that expanded surveillance under the Patriot Act only affects foreign terrorists, not "garden variety" domestic criminals. But fighting domestic crime and terrorism require the same weapons, Cohen said.

    "How would we justify to the parents of a kidnapped child that we had the technology to pick that person up ... but we only use that for terrorists?" noted Rep. Adam Putnam, a Florida Republican and the subcommittee chairman. "At what point do we draw the line where national security threats cross the threshold of criminal activity?"

    Some government intrusion, carefully measured, is worthwhile if it saves lives, said Paul Rosenzweig, a senior legal research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research organization.

    "The risk is worth it if it's going to be used in a narrow range of circumstances that are most significant," he said. Overusing digital tools could create a police state, but ignoring them runs the risk of surrendering the war on terrorism, Rosenzweig said.

    Balancing Act
    Leviathan-like systems will grow beyond their intent, said Barry Steinhardt, director of the Technology and Liberty Program at the American Civil Liberties Union.

    "Build it and it will come," said Steinhardt. "Despite the promises we are now hearing about protecting privacy ... TIA [Terrorist Information Awareness] is very unlikely to remain restricted to hunting terrorists for very long."

    Database profiling of people is inefficient, violates the Fourth Amendment's guarantee against invasion of privacy, and could lead to racial discrimination, he said. And once you're on a "no-fly" list, it would be difficult to get off it, Steinhardt said.

    He worries that agencies using these databases will try to fill in gaps of information to improve efficiency, but this will seal the coffin on privacy. People should be concerned that the databases won't be effective against terrorism, or that they'll truly leave ordinary people alone, Steinhardt said.

    That "slippery slope" argument by the ACLU is dangerous, Rosenzweig said. "To say we can't draw the line is to despair of our rationality," he said.

    New intelligence systems like TIA should have built-in privacy protections and expiration dates, Rosenzweig said.

    Keeping Tabs
    Terrorism is the biggest threat to American democracy, according to the Justice Department. But civil-liberties and privacy advocates say government surveillance is potentially the bigger bully.

    Both Steinhardt and Rosenzweig urged Congress to keep close watch on the database systems as they are developed.

    Along those lines, DARPA has submitted to Congress a report on how its data-mining plans would fight terrorism without exposing Americans to an all-seeing government eye.

    A congressional resolution in January demanded the report and put the research and development of TIA on hold. Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat, proposed the measure.

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