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Protecting the privacy of the law-abiding citizens

By Steve Lilienthal
web posted July 28, 2003

Killing the Terrorism Information Awareness program is very much akin to killing a vampire. You can stick a stake in the heart of a vampire and it will die. But pull that stake out, and it will spring back to life.

Recently, the United States Senate passed the Defense Appropriations Bill. In doing so it voted to bar funding for the Terrorism Information Awareness project that is favored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) which is abhorred by advocates of privacy and civil liberties. The House also passed a restrictive measure dealing with TIA, but it required congressional notification and permission for implementing TIA or any part of it rather than a restriction on funding.

TIA, in short, stands for the "data mining" technology developed by DARPA to collect financial, travel, and medical records and other personal information in the hope of identifying potential terrorists. This could include information about hobbies such as gun collecting as well as
political activities.

As the appropriations bills head to conference to be reconciled, the hope among TIA's opponents is that the far stronger Senate measure will be favored. Even so, the fact is that key policymakers in the Defense Department favor TIA. The Office of Management and Budget even wrote a letter to the Senate in favor of axing the bar on TIA funding before the vote. Even if success is achieved this year in blocking TIA funding, TIA's proponents within the federal bureaucracy, the administration, and Congress could very well come back next year with a plan to circumvent a restriction on funding should it be applied this year.

It could be removing the bar on TIA's funding. It could be a similar system with another name sponsored by another department. (Let's not forget that the Transportation Security Agency's CAPPS II program is comparable to TIA.) It could simply be other efforts by the Federal government's maze of law enforcement, national security, and intelligence agencies to engage in predictive modeling of potential crimes and acts of terrorism and the development of profiles of people who might commit them then somehow securing the data to find potential matches.

Whatever the case, citizens need protection from the Federal Government's willingness to engage in such speculation.

The concept of innocent until proven guilty stands to become an obsolete concept if predictive modeling and data mining is allowed to take hold.

If the authorities think you're likely to commit the crime, then you are thought to be guilty until you prove yourself innocent -- provided that you are even given the chance. Once that impression of guilt is in the government's databanks, there is currently no incentive for the government to correct it and to make sure you know what happened and that their assumption of guilt has either been completely erased or is clearly indicated to have been proven false.

Imagine the embarrassment of walking through an airport with a business associate only to be stopped by a security guard because, thanks to their CAPPS II program, they view you to be a cautionary yellow in their scheme of rating passengers for potential threats.

If it is on your record that you have been visited by law enforcement or held up in an airport by agents representing an agency such as the Transportation Security Agency then you may be forever marked a suspect. Understand that the national security and intelligence agencies are under no compulsion to tell you what information they have on you or to permit you a chance to correct it.

TIA is notable for the bipartisan concern that it has attracted. Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) has been a critic. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) called it "the most far-reaching government surveillance plan in history" and stressed that, "there will need to be checks on the government's ability to snoop on law-abiding Americans."

Congress needs to stand up and assert its authority over the Federal bureaucracy. They need to make sure that when federal agencies and departments -- for whatever reason -- decide to obtain information on American citizens that there are solid, concrete grounds for suspicion in the first place. Congress needs to make sure that the information law enforcement, national security, and intelligence agencies desire is not being sought just to find matches that conform to hypothetical modeling of potential suspects. Congress needs to make sure that there are firm guidelines governing the acquisition and handling of databases -- commercial or governmental -- and the accuracy of the information that is stored within them. This is your information.

Congress' privacy advocates, by virtue of the restrictions placed on TIA, have put the Federal Government's law enforcement and national security and intelligence agencies on notice that our constitutional liberties are not to be trifled with just to satisfy the whims of law enforcement's prognosticators/investigators.

Now, privacy advocates in Congress need to do more than to just serve notice. They need to show the Government's law enforcement, national security, and intelligence bureaucrats that they really mean business about any and all data mining activities that violate privacy and threaten the reputations of law-abiding American citizens

Steve Lilienthal is a policy analyst with the Free Congress Foundation.

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