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U.S.: Government Plans New Information Fronts In Terror War

  • Andrew Tully

Some observers are expressing concern about the U.S. government's plans to gather more personal information in the United States -- and around the world -- in its fight against international terrorism. The government says this practice is a necessary tool and one that can be used within the constraints of the law.

Washington, 20 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. government is moving on two fronts to gather an increasing amount of information on suspected terrorists to prevent future attacks on American soil.

Some technology analysts see these steps as a necessary, if sometimes intrusive, way of ensuring Americans' protection. Others contend that they represent a further erosion of citizens' civil liberties, and that this step probably will never be reversed.

On one front, a special appellate panel of judges (Court of Review) recently approved broad new wiretapping and other surveillance powers for the Justice Department as provided under the USA Patriot Act, the antiterror legislation passed by Congress a month after the attacks of 11 September 2001.

The ruling overturned a decision by the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which said the new surveillance powers should be granted only under strict judicial supervision.

Meanwhile, the Defense Department is setting up a new computer system that would gather and sort personal information from around the world in an effort to spot data trends that could identify terrorists or terrorist activity.

This technique is known as "data mining," and is already being used -- to a much less ambitious extent -- by private businesses in search of customers.

In announcing his department's new surveillance powers on 18 November, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft said he would now be able to mount his part of the war on terrorism more efficiently:

"The Court of Review's action revolutionizes our ability to investigate terrorists and prosecute terrorist acts. The decision allows the Department of Justice to free immediately our agents and prosecutors in the field to work together more closely and cooperatively in achieving our core mission -- the mission of preventing terrorist attacks."

Ashcroft stressed that civil liberties advocates have nothing to fear from his department's use of its new powers. But not all those who heard his words agreed. One is Solveig Singleton, an analyst of technology issues at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, an independent policy research center in Washington.

Singleton tells RFE/RL that it is dangerous for any society to give its government increased access to their private lives -- even if this access is supposed to expire on a certain date, which is known as a "sunset date." She cited an example of a surveillance law passed in Britain, which has a good reputation for respecting civil liberties:

"Some years ago, England expanded its wiretapping powers of the police. And they had a sunset date, like a lot of the provisions in the Patriot Act do, but of course the [English] sunset date came and went, and the powers are still there. So I think that the powers that have been expanded -- it's very unlikely that they'll ever be rolled back, unless there are really appalling abuses."

But some say Americans are at war and should fear terrorists more than they do their own government. This is the argument put forth by Erran Carmel, an associate professor of management and global information technology at American University in Washington:

"I feel that [broader surveillance power is] something that, as a people, Americans have to be very concerned about and continuously monitor. However, at the juncture that we're in now, in terms of national security, we can't look at things like we did on September 10, 2001."

The Pentagon's plans to use "data mining" also is coming under attack from some quarters, even though the practice is legal when used by private businesses.

In commerce, data mining is using fast computers to scan huge amounts of data in search of marketing trends or customer preferences. This way, businesses can focus the advertising of their products or services on people or other businesses that are more likely to buy them. This is far more efficient, and less costly, than broadcasting their advertisements to all in the hope that a few might be interested.

Critics say such data mining is, for the most part, benign because it seeks to provide customers with something they might want. Data mining by the Pentagon, on the other hand, would be done to find patterns of behavior that might lead to the arrest of suspected terrorists.

And it would do so without any judicial supervision, according to Allan Davidson, the general counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology, a private organization in Washington that advocates personal privacy in an age of increasing technological intrusion:

"When you put [the data on an individual] together it creates a very detailed and invasive dossier about a person's life and a person's activities. And it's very troubling to imagine the government doing that without some kind of appropriate oversight or check on how it's used. It's chilling to imagine that data being gathered even with oversight."

Singleton -- of the Competitive Enterprise Institute -- says she is less concerned about the Defense Department's use of data mining. First, she says, there is nothing that she can find in the U.S. Constitution that would prohibit the practice. Besides, she contends, it is one of the very few tools that the government could use to prevent further terrorist attacks against the United States.

But Singleton says there are other problems with data mining. She says most data mining searches for behavior that is fairly common, like customers who do not pay their bills. Terrorism, she says, is rare, so data that points to it will be equally rare. Therefore, she concludes, it will be difficult for the Pentagon to know whether its data mining is a reliable way to track down terrorists.

Besides, she says, if the database is to have a global reach, it will be nothing less than a glut of data -- some of it in electronic form, some in paper form, some in foreign languages -- that will require enormous sums of money and manpower to manage:

"So if the Pentagon is going to do this on some kind of a global scale, they're really talking about, well, frankly, a huge boondoggle (waste of time and money)."

A further problem is getting other countries' cooperation in compiling the database. Without it, the database would be useless in the war against international terrorism.

Singleton and Davidson -- of the Center for Democracy and Technology -- agree that other countries may be reluctant to share information on their citizens with the American military. Carmel, of American University, puts it more bluntly:

"This deals with fundamental issues of national sovereignty. There will be resistance, and [it will] certainly [be] justified. No one around the world, even the U.S.' closest allies, likes American government agencies snooping on their own people."

So despite the opposition of civil libertarians, the real enemies of data mining by the U.S. government may be resistance from foreign countries and its inherent management problems.