Civil liberty warnings raised

Granting law enforcement agencies more authority to use surveillance technology is an appealing strategy in the war on terrorism, but it may do more damage to American civil liberties than it does to terrorist organizations, a coalition of civil rights supporters warned Sept. 20.

An increase in the use of surveillance technology in airports, for example, could result in a vast erosion of personal privacy for the public with little improvement in public safety, members of the American Civil Liberties Union said.

Facial-recognition cameras are being touted as a technological answer to the problem of finding terrorists among tens of thousands of travelers. The cameras work by taking pictures of travelers' faces and comparing them to a database of images of suspected terrorists.

But the technology "has a pitiful error rate of 43 percent," said Rachel King, ACLU legislative counsel. "It is conceivable that Osama bin Laden himself could be staring directly into one of these machines and not register as a threat," she said.

Similarly, low-dose X-ray machines known as "body scanners" are intended to reveal weapons hidden beneath layers of clothing. But the scanners are invasive and inaccurate, King said.

Airport security is part of a much bigger problem. Congress is rushing to pass laws that will make it easier for investigators to intercept e-mail messages, monitor Internet activity and otherwise expand law enforcement authority in ways that would infringe on civil liberties. But the lawmakers have not shown that changing the law will make the public safer, ACLU officials said.

"Obviously there is need for heightened security," said Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU's Washington, D.C., office. But Congress is acting without holding hearings or taking time to study the effect of the legal changes they are preparing to make, ACLU officials said.

The notoriously liberal ACLU was joined by conservative Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.), who said he has strong reservations about the proposed changes and about the speed with which they are moving through Congress.

About 150 organizations and individuals have joined together to urge Congress and the Bush administration to exercise great care before passing laws that would limit civil liberties.

The fastest-moving proposal is the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2001, which is sought by Attorney General John Ashcroft who asked that it be passed in a week. Among numerous changes, the bill would give police wider latitude for using information gained through wiretaps and Internet intercepts and allow the use of secret evidence in deportation and other cases.

A week ago, the Senate approved giving investigators new wiretapping and Internet interception powers. The vote came "in the middle of the night with little to no debate," the ACLU said.

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