Congress urged to watch privacy

To ensure that two systems designed to identify and track terrorist activity do not infringe on civil liberties, Congress should keep a close and critical eye on them, privacy and legal experts said today.

The Transportation Security Administration's Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System II and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Total Information Awareness (TIA) system have been highly criticized by privacy advocates. In a second hearing before a House Government Reform subcommittee, experts told lawmakers the scope of the systems should be limited and scrutinized.

"It's not whether it will work. The real question is what if it does work," said Paul Rosenzweig, senior legal research fellow for the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at the Heritage Foundation. "What will you be doing to examine if it is being used appropriately or inappropriately?"

Rosenzweig said Congress should have unfettered access to information about the systems, even if it needs to be in a classified environment. He said the systems should require congressional authorization and have built-in penalties for abuse and constructs for constant review.

Rosenzweig criticized Congress' Wyden amendment, referring to a Jan. 15 amendment by Sen. Ron Wyden's (D-Ore.) to the fiscal 2003 spending bill, which restricted TIA's development. "The right answer is not for Congress to adopt a blanket prohibition," Rosenzweig said today in his written testimony before the House Technology, Information Policy, Intergovernmental Relations and the Census Subcommittee. "Rather, Congress should commit to doing the hard work of digging into the details of the TIA and examining its operation against the background of existing laws and the existing terrorist threats at home and abroad."

"Some form of review is absolutely essential," Rosenzweig told lawmakers. "There is no doubt that however we construct these systems there will be errors."

One privacy advocate, however, wasn't convinced the systems would work at all, and urged Congress to assess first if they would work and at what cost to personal freedoms.

Barry Steinhardt, director of the technology and liberty program at the American Civil Liberties Union, said systems' details have changed substantially since they were introduced, but they still are "massive systems of surveillance."

"Congress has the right and duty to ask some hard questions of the [Bush] administration," he told lawmakers.

Rosenzweig noted that the changes in the systems are examples of how congressional oversight can be effective. "I see the natural product of the development of an idea...that ultimately gets refined as it's subject to public scrutiny," he said.

John Cohen, co-founder, president and chief executive officer of PSComm LLC, suggested Congress examine funding given to state and local agencies for homeland security. Rather than take a reactive position, as they were forced to do after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, state and local entities should invest in information-sharing tools with a focus on prevention, he said.

Cohen argued that state and local officials are on the front lines of combating terrorism and should be linked to the federal systems that collect, analyze and disseminate terrorist data. With this link comes oversight, he said.

"These efforts should include establishing aggressive oversight of law enforcement and homeland security-related activities," Cohen said in testimony. "As we expand the universe of information available to law enforcement, we also expand the potential for abuse. I am hopeful that Congress...will continue to fulfill their oversight responsibility."

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