Privacy group sues Homeland office

Alarmed that the Office of Homeland Security may be secretly developing elements of a national identification system, a privacy watchdog organization filed suit in federal court April 1, demanding access to the agency's working documents.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center sued after the Office of Homeland Security and its director, Tom Ridge, failed to respond to a March 20 Freedom of Information Act request for copies of agency records.

EPIC Executive Director Marc Rotenberg said his organization wants records that detail the agency's efforts to get states to issue standardized driver's licenses, to create a "trusted flier" program and to use biometric technology to identify U.S. citizens and foreign visitors.

EPIC fears such activities could lead to the creation of intrusive national identification systems that would have "enormous implications for privacy and civil liberties in America," Rotenberg said.

But perhaps more important, he stressed, is establishing that the Office of Homeland Security must operate in public view.

"This will be a critical test of open government," Rotenberg said during a telephone press conference after filing the suit. The suit comes as openness emerges as an increasingly contentious issue for the Office of Homeland Security. For several weeks, Ridge has refused to testify before Congress about Bush administration plans for spending $38 billion on homeland security.

In a letter to House and Senate leaders, Rotenberg sided with members of Congress who say Ridge is obliged to answer questions when summoned by congressional committees. He said that "significant new powers" have been allocated to the Office of Homeland Security that "require meaningful public oversight."

During the press conference, Rotenberg said, "It is our belief that the Office of Homeland Security is playing a critical role" in developing policies and systems that could lead to a national identification card.

EPIC views national ID cards as a major step toward the infrastructure for a national surveillance system. National ID cards could enable the government to track personal activities and transactions, EPIC contends.

Supporters of national IDs say they would enhance national security by making it harder for foreign visitors to evade detection.

EPIC is seeking information on model legislation that the Office of Homeland Security says it is drafting to require states to link the expiration dates of driver's licenses issued to foreigners to the expiration dates of their visas.

The privacy organization also wants records related to efforts to standardize driver's licenses across the country. Standard driver's licenses and interconnected state databases on drivers could form the basis for a national identification system, EPIC officials contend.

EPIC lawyer David Sobel said he has similar concerns about a "trusted flier" program that interests Ridge's office. That program could mean the creation of a federally issued ID card that uses biometric technology as a means of identification, he said.

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