Pentagon Releases Report on Cyber-Surveillance System's Privacy Threat; Right-Left Groups Urge Continued Oversight

May 20, 2003 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – Responding to the release today of a Pentagon report on the threat to privacy rights and potential ineffectiveness of the broadly maligned Total Information Awareness cyber-surveillance system, the American Civil Liberties Union and other concerned groups from across the political spectrum said that Congress must continue its vigorous oversight of new government spying powers and technologies.

“It is grimly appropriate that this Orwellian program is being sold to us in such an Orwellian manner,” said Barry Steinhardt, Director of the ACLU Technology and Liberty Program. Noting that the government had renamed the program to “Terrorism Information Awareness,” he added, “the government can’t expect us to forget everything they’ve said before about this program just by changing its name.”

The Pentagon’s report was mandated in February under legislation sponsored by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), which was attached as an amendment to a large omnibus spending bill. Under the Wyden amendment, the Pentagon was required to release a report within 90 days from the bill’s enactment dealing with the threats posed by Total Information Awareness to privacy rights and civil liberties in America. Pentagon officials were also required to examine concerns that the cyber-surveillance system would be practically unusable.

Today’s submission to Sen. Wyden by the Department of Defense and its Defense Advance Research Projects Agency left many important questions unanswered, said the ACLU and other concerned groups.

“Congress should be applauded for requiring this report,” said James X. Dempsey, Executive Director of the Center for Democracy and Technology. “But this is only the beginning of the oversight process. Before any data mining is implemented, Congress needs to ensure that it is subject to clear rules and checks and balances. Currently, the privacy laws simply don’t address this kind of thing.”

Had the Pentagon not submitted the report this morning, the Wyden amendment required that TIA’s funding be frozen and further development of the system halted.

Sen. Wyden’s legislation received broad support both in Congress and among right and left-leaning groups. Advocacy organizations as diverse as the ACLU and the American Conservative Union have long been public in their joint opposition to reckless expansions of government surveillance power and capacity that go far beyond anything required in the fight against terrorism.

“”Concern over TIA and other official spying measures isn’t a liberal or conservative thing – it’s an American thing,”” said David Keene, Chairman of the American Conservative Union. “”As advocacy groups, our bread and butter is the ability to speak and think freely. Government surveillance of unpopular ideas has historically had an extreme and unacceptable chilling effect on this exchange of ideas.””

TIA is a project at the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency that will, according to boosters at the Pentagon, allow federal agents to predict terrorist activity. Technically, the system would use “”data-mining”” and complex, ever-shifting mathematical formulae to sift through highly personal information in databases around the world in what many say is a vain quest to effectively create a high-tech crystal ball.

“”It goes against our very character as a nation to accept that anybody is guilty until proven innocent in America,”” said Lori Waters, Executive Director of the Eagle Forum. “”And, that’s exactly what Total Information Awareness does. It makes us all summary suspects, and does so without any guarantee that it will catch the bad guys.””

Much concern on the right has also focused on TIA’s high risk of misuse. Even if the system is not deliberately abused, simple arithmetic suggests that the number of Americans falsely implicated as potential terrorists could be staggering. Some calculations show that an error rate as negligible as a tenth of a percent could result in upwards of 30,000 innocent Americans being investigated as terrorists.

“The privacy of thousands of Americans is too high a price to pay for TIA’s unproven value,” said Elliot Mincberg, vice president and legal director of People For the American Way. “Congressional oversight, from requiring this report to conducting ongoing hearings, is absolutely necessary. We should not be sacrificing our freedom under the guise of protecting it.”

If TIA’s power, however, is used to deliberately grind political axes, the implications could be catastrophic for civil liberties, say many on the right and the left.

“TIA is a blueprint for unlimited government. Regardless of who proposes this or any other comparable expansion of government power, our deep suspicions will remain. The proponents of TIA shouldn’t expect to satisfy us once and for all by issuing this report. We’re going to watch them as closely as they intend to watch us,” said Grover Norquist, President of Americans For Tax Reform. “”Expansive government power doesn’t go by ideological litmus tests in its suppression of our rights.””

Notably, the Pentagon’s report also does not go far enough in answering the question laid out in a separate document put together by the ACLU earlier this week detailing information that must be disclosed before the Pentagon can be seen to be in compliance with the demands of the Wyden amendment.

“Still no one has addressed the issue of data quality,”” said Lisa Dean, Vice President of Technology Policy at Free Congress Foundation. “”If TIA is relying on personal information contained in databases to determine whether someone is a suspect, what recourse does the person have whose information has been entered incorrectly? They would be labeled a suspect by an all-knowing system that made a mistake in what it knows.”

Questions not answered in the Pentagon report include: how can TIA be effective with such a high false positive rate deflecting scrutiny away from real terrorists? Whether current technology is up to the task demanded of TIA? Will TIA mirror the evolution of other bureaucracies and drastically outpace its initial mandate — eating up more and more resources and furthering the systematic surveillance of everyday Americans?

“Congress must ask tough questions about this initiative, and data mining generally,”” said David Sobel, General Counsel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. We should not go down this road unless there is a clear demonstration of effectiveness. If data mining proponents can meet that burden, Congress then needs to impose strict rules and standards to protect privacy and constitutional rights.”

Even if TIA is kept on a short leash, the ACLU asked, would that even make a difference in how Americans are affected by the implementation of a seemingly omni-present surveillance apparatus?

“TIA keeps trying to sweeten this pill to get the American people to swallow it,” said Jay Stanley, Communications Director for the Technology and Liberty Program. “But if they do, the result will be the same: a dangerous program that corrodes our liberty.

The ACLU’s report on the TIA program can be found at:

The ACLU’s feature on the TIA Program can be found at:

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