Congress urged to eye privacy

Privacy and legal experts said last month that Congress should keep a close and critical eye on two systems designed to identify and track terrorist activity.

Privacy advocates have led the opposition to the Transportation Security Administration's Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System (CAPPS) II and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Terrorism Information Awareness (TIA) system. In a second hearing before a subcommittee of the House Government Reform Committee, experts told lawmakers the systems' scope should be limited.

"It's not whether [TIA] 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 system, even if it must happen in a classified environment. He said TIA should require congressional authorization, have built-in penalties for abuse and be constantly reviewed.

However, Rosenzweig criticized an amendment to the fiscal 2003 spending bill that restricted TIA's development; the amendment was introduced by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). "The right answer is not for Congress to adopt a blanket prohibition," Rosenzweig said in written testimony for 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."

Barry Steinhardt, director of the Program on Technology and Liberty at the American Civil Liberties Union, said details about TIA and CAPPS II have changed substantially since the programs 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 marketing firm PSComm LLC, recommended that Congress take an interest in how state and local agencies are using the federal funding granted for homeland security. Rather than be reactive, as they were forced to do after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, state and local entities should invest in information-sharing tools that 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 federal systems that collect, analyze and disseminate terrorist data. With this link comes federal oversight, he said.

"These efforts should include establishing aggressive oversight of law enforcement and homeland security- related activities," Cohen testified.

"As we expand the universe of information available to law enforcement," he said, "we also expand the potential for abuse. I am hopeful that Congress...will continue to fulfill [its] oversight responsibility."

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