Data mining laws needed to protect US citizens

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A US government committee has advised Congress to pass laws to protect the civil liberties of individuals when the government uses data mining technology to sift through files for information about terrorists.

The panel, the Technology and Privacy Advisory Committee, said the Pentagon programme was "not the tip of the iceberg, but rather one small specimen in a sea of icebergs." "The privacy issues presented by data mining cannot be resolved by the Department of Defense alone," the panel said. "Action by Congress, the president and the courts is necessary as well."

The eight-member panel, which includes former officials with decades of high-level government experience, found that the Defense Department and many other agencies were collecting and using "personally identifiable information on US persons for national security and law enforcement purposes."

Some of these activities, it said, resemble the Pentagon programme initially known as Total Information Awareness, which was intended to catch terrorists before they struck by monitoring e-mail and databases of financial, medical and travel information.

"The Department of Defense should safeguard the privacy of US persons when using data mining to fight terrorism," the panel says in a report to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The report says privacy laws lag far behind advances in information and communications technology.

"Our nation should use information technology and the power to search digital data to fight terrorism, but should protect privacy while doing so," it concluded. "In developing and using data mining tools, the government can and must protect privacy."

The panel said the existing laws on information privacy were so disjointed and out of date that they "threaten both our nation's efforts to fight terrorism and the constitutionally protected rights of U.S. persons," defined as citizens and permanent resident aliens.

"Government access to personal data can threaten individual liberty and invade constitutionally protected informational privacy rights," the panel said.

The panel was set up by Rumsfeld in February 2003 to head off a political uproar over the Pentagon data mining programme, headed by John M. Poindexter, a retired rear admiral. Congress cut off money for the programme in September 2003, with certain exceptions described in a "classified annex" to the 2004 military spending law.

One member of the panel, William T. Coleman Jr., who was transportation secretary in the Ford administration, filed a lengthy dissent, asserting that the proposed restrictions could cripple the fight against terrorism. The proposals, he said, go far beyond what is required by the Constitution, federal laws or Supreme Court decisions.

Democrat Senator Ron Wyden has led opposition to the Pentagon programme. "This confirms what I've been saying as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee,"Wyden said. "It's possible to fight terrorism ferociously without gutting civil liberties. The challenge in striking that balance is to have ground rules. I've introduced a bill to set rules for data mining by the federal government. I suspect that federal agencies are doing an immense amount of data mining."

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