ACLU Briefs Key House Committee on Privacy

December 3, 2008 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – The House Homeland Security Committee hosted a series of roundtable discussions today to consider the future of privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties at the Department of Homeland Security. Chairman Bennie Thompson invited scholars and experts from across the country, including the American Civil Liberties Union, to participate. The ACLU offered guidance on policies such as federal watch lists, border security, and increased information sharing among law enforcement – including the use of fusion centers.

“The Department of Homeland Security is nearing its first transition to a new administration, and with this transition comes the opportunity for a review of what policies and programs do and do not work in keeping America safe and keeping Americans free,” said Timothy Sparapani, ACLU Senior Legislative Counsel. “One significant area in dire need of reexamination is our approach to transportation security. For too long, we have had an out-of-control watch list system intended to keep the bad guys off airplanes, but when its records number well over one million, its effectiveness has been negated. The ACLU calls on Congress and the new administration to scale back the watch lists to contain only individuals known to have the motive and the access to do America harm. In doing so, the lists would become far more usable and effective in keeping our nation safe.”

The ACLU held a press event in October to bring attention to the expansive powers of customs and border agents, enabling the invasion of the privacy of individuals at the U.S. border, which the ACLU has labeled the “Constitution-Free Zone.” At the press conference, the ACLU released a map showing the 100-mile “border region” claimed by the government, and the cities and states that fall within it. The map, which was created using the latest census data, shows that two-thirds of the U.S. population, including nine of the nation’s top 10 largest metro areas, is within the border zone.

“Since its inception, DHS has treated our borders as areas where the Constitution does not apply,” added Barry Steinhardt, director of the ACLU Technology and Liberty Program. “Border policies that permit unwarranted searches and detainment have begun to creep further and further inland, affecting innocent Americans going about their everyday lives. As our nation transitions to a new administration, it would be wise for Congress and DHS to extensively examine the ripple effects of border policies that are said to be keeping us safe, while honoring the privacy of innocent Americans.”

The ACLU has updated a previously published report on fusion centers which documents several instances where state and local police officials improperly collected and accessed intelligence information in ways that risk – rather than protect – our security, including improper police spying on peace advocates in Maryland and law enforcement involvement in intelligence data thefts in California. Adding to the growing concerns over information gathering is a troubling Bush administration proposal to change federal regulations governing criminal intelligence databases. With both a new Congress and a new administration starting in January, the ACLU is hopeful that there will be greater oversight and transparency of domestic intelligence activities and that the damage done to our civil liberties will be addressed.

“Over the last eight years there has been a consistent movement to give law enforcement increased information sharing power while relaxing restrictions on information gathering,” said Michael German, ACLU National Security Policy Counsel and former FBI Special Agent. “Failing to set proper safeguards now could place every American’s privacy in jeopardy. We need to institute structured, uniform and comprehensive guidelines that protect our sensitive personal information. Congress and the new administration have the opportunity to roll back increasingly unobstructed information gathering and sharing practices. They should not squander it.”

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