Privacy groups scrutinize anti-terror tech

Progressive Policy Institute

Defense Department officials last year axed the controversial Terrorism Information Awareness (TIA) data-mining project meant to spot patterns that could indicate a potential terrorist attack, but only after a fusillade of criticism from privacy advocates, civil libertarians and others.

Critics feared the federal government would become Big Brother, though the system was still in its early stages and nowhere near being operational.

Similarly, there was a barrage of criticism from such groups at both ends of the political spectrum when federal lawmakers considered adding biometric identifiers and other technologies to driver's licenses. Privacy advocates were concerned that the government was moving toward creating a national identification card.

Rob Atkinson, vice president of the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI), a think tank affiliated with the Democratic Leadership Council, said representatives of some privacy and civil liberties groups believe the technologies themselves -- not just the use of them -- represent a fundamental threat.

"I think that's the wrong debate to be having," he said Oct. 20 during a PPI-sponsored forum that included David Sobel, general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, and Paul Rosenzweig, senior legal research fellow with the Heritage Foundation.

Atkinson said technologies can be deployed without infringing on people's privacy. Information technology can help find terrorists before they strike if integrated networks are available to help authorities sift through data. He also said technology could help identify individuals who might be a risk to society.

"We shouldn't be barring new technology as a way to protect individual privacy," he said, adding that the government can ensure that systems are transparent and accountable through electronic and privacy audits, oversight boards and other means.

Sobel said he isn't against technology, but he believes its implementation hasn't been well planned. For example, he said, the principal problem with TIA -- originally called Total Information Awareness -- was "this idea of being able to do any type of predictive analysis." He said the concept is alien to the way society functions and there was no way you could tweak the system to make it more acceptable or accurate.

He pointed out that the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System II -- the airline system recently replaced with another controversial program called Secure Flight -- has mistakenly flagged travelers, such as Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), as potential terrorists.

Sobel can foresee a scenario in which individuals seeking jobs in certain sectors would be checked against a government database to see if they should be allowed to work there. He said if there's no due process or judicial review, people could be unfairly discriminated against.

Although Rosenzweig said he doesn't disagree with Sobel's argument, people often see the promises of technology but are immobilized by the problems. He also said the opposition to many of these technologies has a perverse counter effect that drives some programs underground into agencies with classified budgets or into the private sector.

Rosenzweig said he believed a due process or judicial review model could be incorporated into the national security system, perhaps through proxy reviews by a neutral third party such as a judge. Another approach, which was recently proposed in a Senate intelligence reform bill, would rely on the congressional intelligence committees or an independent civil liberties and privacy board.

Additionally, he said technology is neutral and shouldn't change any rules already in place. He added that a human decision-maker should be involved when predictive technologies are used so that no one is automatically deemed a threat.

Atkinson said part of the problem is that Bush administration officials have not taken these issues seriously enough.

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