IT's veiled threat

Attorney General John Ashcroft has unwittingly underscored the reality that technology heightens the threat to American civil liberties.

Late last month, Ashcroft defended a plan to recruit private citizens to report suspicious behavior in their neighborhoods by saying the data would not be stored in a central database, although it might be kept in individual law enforcement databases across the country.

The attorney general suggested that this distinction would ensure that the program, known as Operation Tips, would protect Americans from undue violations of their privacy. His argument shows that Justice Department officials understand the power of technology, but that they also underestimate it. Therein lies the threat.

Much is made about the difficulty government agencies have sharing information. The usual problems, though, are not necessarily obstacles to privacy breaches.

Clearly, both technically and culturally, it is hard to set up a system to automate data exchanges between agencies or across different levels of government, as the law enforcement and intelligence communities can verify.

But numerous agencies have managed the task on a smaller scale, working with a well-defined set of data and well-understood processes. The technology exists for such initiatives, experts say, if organizations have a sufficiently compelling reason to undertake them.

If we take Ashcroft at his word and set aside concern about a systematic abuse of privacy, we are still left with the possibility that well-meaning individuals could take it upon themselves to take a decentralized system and start making the links. The necessary technology is likely well within their means, and the motive — the threat to national security — is certainly compelling.

The outcry about Operation Tips and the specter of citizen informants could kill the program before it ever begins. But as long as agency officials responsible for homeland security underestimate the technology at their disposal, the threat to civil liberties will linger.

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