Scrutiny required

Defense Department officials are saying everything that privacy advocates want to hear about the newly renamed Terrorism Information Awareness program.

They promise that agencies will be required to conduct legal reviews before using the system, which would scour databases run by airlines, financial institutions and schools for leads on potential terrorists.

And they promise that the system will include audit tools to track users who access the system and security technology to protect against unauthorized access. And they say search tools will be tested for accuracy.

Maybe those assurances are enough for congressional leaders, who had asked for more information about how the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency would protect the privacy of American citizens before funding the controversial project.

But despite those assurances, the danger remains that the privacy safeguards could be no more than a sleight of hand, much like the name change announced late last month. Maybe some people will feel better about a program that promises "terrorism" rather than "total" information awareness, but they shouldn't.

The technology that makes TIA so tantalizing — that makes it possible to identify telling links among disparate bits of data stored in different databases — also makes it incredibly dangerous. The system would be designed to find terrorists, but it would do so by sorting through records in which everyone, at some level, is suspect.

The Bush administration should be every bit as concerned about the risks as Congress and the privacy watchdogs are. The tension between civil liberties and civil order require that this government police itself as carefully as it polices the country at large. When the government fails in one direction or the other, trouble always ensues.

DOD officials, of course, promise to provide the oversight needed to protect civil liberties. But that is not enough. If this program moves forward, it should be scrutinized every bit as intensely as the data it is designed to mine.

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