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A supersnoop's dream
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<-- Return To TerrorSpeak

Source: Washington Times

'A supersnoop's dream'
By Audrey Hudson

Language tucked inside the Homeland Security bill will allow the federal government to track the e-mail, Internet use, travel, credit-card purchases, phone and bank records of foreigners and U.S. citizens in its hunt for terrorists.

In what one critic has called "a supersnoop's dream," the Defense Department's Total Information Awareness program would be authorized to collect every type of available public and private data in what the Pentagon describes as one "centralized grand database." Computers and analysts are supposed to use all this available information to determine patterns of people's behavior in order to detect and identify terrorists, decipher plans and enable the United States to pre-empt terrorist acts.

The project first appeared in the Senate Democratic proposal for the new Homeland Security Department, which was defeated Wednesday in a 50-47 vote. However it was included in the Republican-brokered agreement that passed the House later that night in a 299-121 vote and is on the fast track to pass the Senate by next week.

The computer-generated project of raw data will "help identify promising technologies and quickly get them into the hands of people who need them," according to a congressional leadership memo outlining the legislation.

In a blistering op-ed piece in yesterday's New York Times titled "You Are A Suspect," columnist William Safire compared the database to George Orwell's Big Brother government in the novel "1984."

"To this computerized dossier on your private life from commercial sources, add every piece of information that government has about you passport application, driver's license and bridge toll records, judicial and divorce records, complaints from nosy neighbors to the FBI, your lifetime paper trail plus the latest hidden camera surveillance and you have the supersnoop's dream: a 'Total Information Awareness' about every U.S. citizen," Mr. Safire wrote.

"There is a great danger in this provision. It gives carte blanche to eavesdrop on Americans on the flimsiest of evidence, if any evidence at all," said Phil Kent, president of the Southeastern Legal Foundation.

Mr. Kent called the provision "an unprecedented electronic dragnet."

"I think it's the most sweeping threat to civil liberties since Japanese-American internment," Mr. Kent said.

Mr. Kent and outgoing Rep. Bob Barr, Georgia Republican, are lobbying the Senate to remove this and other provisions they say are a threat to civil liberties and restrict the public's right to know of government activities.

"In defense of members of Congress, many don't read the whole legislation and very few people read the fine print," said Mr. Barr. "You would think the Pentagon planning a system to peek at personal data would get a little more attention.

"It's outrageous, it really is outrageous," Mr. Barr said. The bill establishes the Total Information Awareness program within a new agency the Security Advanced Research Projects Agency (SARPA), which would be modeled on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the central research office for the Defense Department that pursues research and technology, and led to the creation of the Internet. DARPA and SARPA both would be under the supervision of Adm. John Poindexter.

Neither Adm. Poindexter nor a spokesman at his current agency, DARPA, could be reached for comment. The phone number listed for Adm. Poindexter in the government directory reaches a recording that says incoming calls are not accepted. A recording reached in the media relations office states that Adm. Poindexter is "not accepting any interview requests at this time."

Adm. Poindexter first hit the public eye as national security adviser for President Reagan during the Iran-Contra scandal. He was convicted in 1990 on five felonies including lying to Congress and destroying evidence.

At a DARPA conference in Anaheim, Calif., Adm. Poindexter made his first public appearance since taking the post in February.

"During the years I was in the White House, it was relatively simple to identify our intelligence collection targets," Adm. Poindexter was quoted as saying in Government Executive magazine.

However, the United States now faces "asymmetrical" threats that are loosely organized and difficult to find, and require new, technology-driven defenses, he said. The goal of his new office is to consider every source of information available worldwide to uncover terrorists, the magazine said.

Marc Rotenberg, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said the computer system would capture the data and analyze it to find patterns that match terrorist activity.

Authorizing the project would require amending the Privacy Act of 1974. The language contained in the homeland security bill does not address the act directly, but authorizes the creation of the agency.

Mr. Rotenberg said the database takes a convergence of various factors to a system of public surveillance.

"They think the technology is about catching terrorists and bad guys, but these systems can capture a lot of data at different levels without oversight, judicial review, public reporting or congressional investigations. I can't think of a good countermeasure that would be good to safeguard civil liberties in the United States," Mr. Rotenberg said.

<-- Return To TerrorSpeak

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