WASHINGTON – The government knows how old you are, the market value of your home, whether you’ve been arrested, what car you drive and what you earn. You know that.
But do they know what books you buy? What Web sites you visit? Whom you call? Perhaps.
Privacy advocates and some constitutional scholars say recent revelations – the gathering of domestic phone records to find terrorists and the loss of data on 26 million veterans – raise new questions about the potential for abuse and misuse when the government archives personal information about ordinary Americans.
The debate isn’t new, and neither is the trend. In 1974, the Senate Judiciary Committee identified 843 government databases that contained personal data on Americans. Of those, at least 457 had no specific legal authorization, and 100 of those had no authorization at all.
The computer age has multiplied those numbers, however, with no accurate accounting of how much the government compiles.
New technologies have created a massive market for what was once regarded as intimate knowledge of individuals. Marketing programs and devices – ranging from grocery discount cards to Internet identifiers on your computer – allow passive disclosure of consumer transactions. And for the right price, that information is available to the government or anyone else. Law enforcement agencies, tax collectors, utility firms, collection companies and others purchase data from companies such as ChoicePoint and BTI to create profiles for everything from screening job applicants to solving crimes.
“It’s the biggest privacy problem in the 21st century,” said Jim Harper of the Cato Institute, a Libertarian think tank. “The crossover of privately created data into the hands of the government is a potentially dangerous thing.”
Polls show that most people accept the gathering of personal data.
Judith Womack, 47, counts herself as a “left-leaning” Democrat who cherishes personal freedom. Still, the Dallas legal assistant said she is comforted by the fact that the government is actively searching for the next wave of al-Qaida operatives.
“I think 9/11 could have been prevented if we’d done more about finding out who was here,” Womack said. “And I don’t think I mind giving up a little freedom if it means making us more secure.”
“I don’t think that you should have so much freedom that you put people at risk,” she said.
Brandon Mayfield, a lawyer from Portland, Ore., has a different perspective.
Two years ago, he was arrested in the 2004 terrorist bombings of rush-hour trains in Madrid after the FBI used a computer database that matched a 22-year-old fingerprint from him with one found by Spanish authorities on a satchel of detonating devices. He was held for 21 days – much of the time without access to a lawyer – before the print was found to be that of an Algerian terrorist. An FBI inspector general determined later that investigators ignored evidence of his innocence in favor of the data-based fingerprint match.
Mayfield declined to speak in detail about his experience because of pending lawsuits, but he said Americans may be taking government snooping too lightly.
“Most of us are willing to trade our privacy for security, as long as it doesn’t involve us,” he said.
Concerns about intrusion and accuracy are compounded, say privacy advocates, by increased government use of commercially gathered data from private sources.
Still, the development of new government data and database projects is rarely debated in Washington, and not always disclosed.
And that may be the biggest concern: What is the government compiling in secret?
“That’s why you need the institutional bulwark of constitutional checks. It’s all about accountability. You need the collective wisdom of the people to regulate this,” said Bruce Fein, a high-ranking Justice Department official during the Reagan administration.
Critics like Fein say that technology and expedience have helped to erode the 1974 Privacy Act, in which Congress tried to control wholesale government information gathering by allowing average Americans to see and challenge their personal records. That access, once a hallmark of government accountability, has been chipped away by concerns for secrecy, Fein said.
“You can’t challenge something if it’s kept secret,” he said. “You have no way of knowing what you don’t know.”
Since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, government databases have, by federal law, become more prolific and more proficient.
Since March 2003, for instance, all international airlines are required to provide the government with full electronic access to passenger data – from names and flights to credit card numbers and specially requested meals.
By 2004, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., was being turned away from flights because his last name and first initial matched a person on the government’s no-fly list as a terrorist threat.
Just last month, the New York Civil Liberties Union sued Pentagon officials on behalf of six teenagers who objected to a little-known recruiting database maintained by the Defense Department. The six claim the Joint Advertising and Market Research and Recruiting Database used e-mails, test scores and other private information without legal authorization to keep tabs on school-aged youths.
Perhaps no government data effort received a more hostile reception than Total Information Awareness – a Defense Department program revealed in news reports in 2002. The program involved tracking large commercial databases such as travel records, credit card receipts, bank accounts, medical files and telephone logs to try to detect the movement of terrorists across the globe.
Though Congress subsequently scrapped the program, its essential analysis technique – data mining – survived. Data mining is a computerized mathematical tool that analyzes large bodies of information to identify patterns.
In a 2004 study by the Government Accountability Office, federal agencies reported at least 199 data mining projects planned or in operation. Neither the National Security Agency nor the CIA, the nation’s largest spy operations, participated in the survey.
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At a recent conference on security, Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H., argued that most questions about government information gathering need to be considered in context before Congress steps in to regulate them. He said commercial data can be controlled by disclosure and private contracts rather than new laws.
But, he said, even Congress is nervous about wholesale data mining. “You have to weigh whether the benefit is really worth the privacy intrusions involved.”
Aside from misusing government databases, there’s the potential for government workers to just mishandle the information.
The recent theft of 26.5 million Veterans Administration records during a residential burglary illustrates how vulnerable digital government records are. VA officials have said the records were apparently stolen after a VA data analyst took them home on his laptop.
Though there has been no evidence that the records have been used, VFW Commander in Chief Jim Mueller called the incident “deeply disturbing.”
“What happened is absolutely unacceptable, but the task at hand is to inform every veteran family so that they can begin taking steps to safeguard their personal information,” Mueller said.
The incident shows how many people can be affected by just one database, whether the information is gathered from tax rolls, drug stores, long distance providers, utility companies, credit card vendors and Internet questionnaires, said Lillie Coney of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a group that advocates stricter controls on commercial and government data.
“The more this information is sold and spread around, the less accountability there is for the accuracy of the information, much less the privacy concerns,” said Coney. “If everyone has the information, where do you go to correct it if it is wrong?”
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