House Committee Needs to Ask Tough Questions About Domestic Data-Mining Surveillance Systems

May 6, 2003 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – The American Civil Liberties Union today said that before a series of data-mining surveillance systems are implemented, Congress needs to ask and have answered tough questions about their effectiveness in preventing terrorism and impact on fundamental, long-standing civil liberties.

“”If we rush into invasive cyber-surveillance without first assessing its potential harm to both freedom and security, we run the risk of irreparably harming our basic democracy,”” said Katie Corrigan, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. “”Congress needs to weigh the costs and benefits of these new technologies before they are ever used against Americans.””

At issue are three proposed data-mining systems: the Pentagon’s “”Total Information Awareness”” cyber-surveillance system, the second generation of the Transportation Security Administration’s “”Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening System”” (CAPPS II) and the less well-known “”Trilogy”” system at the FBI.

The Technology, Information Policy, Intergovernmental Relations and the Census Subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Adam Putnam (R-FL), of the House Government Reform Committee held a hearing this afternoon on the three proposals. The only witnesses were the systems’ main supporters in the federal government: Admiral James L. Loy, Director of the TSA, Steve McGraw, the Assistant Director of the FBI’s Office of Intelligence, and Anthony Tether, Director of the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

For several months now, the ACLU and other privacy advocates have been calling on lawmakers to be conscientious in examining whether the guaranteed invasion of privacy and infringement on civil liberties posed by these systems is warranted in light of the questionable effectiveness of data-mining in the war against terrorism.

Specific questions that need to be asked and answered include:

  • What are the expected error rates of the systems and how many innocent people will they flag as terrorists?
  • Have any of these programs been formally evaluated for effectiveness and, especially, practical feasibility?
  • What specific personal information will be mined?
  • Who will retain the information? Will the private sector have access to it?
  • How would somebody wrongly flagged by one of the systems go about clearing their name?
  • Would individuals even be given notice that the government is examining their personal information?
  • Will there be any external oversight of the systems by either the courts or Congress?

“”Until these and other tough questions are fully addressed by the proponents of data-mining, Congress and the American people need to keep a critical eye on these proposals,”” Corrigan said. “”Our interests are obviously not served by technology that does nothing to make us safer while making us less free.””

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