Privacy Groups Sound Warning on Homeland Security Database

The Department of Homeland Security is compiling a broad new database it says it needs to spot potential terrorist threats — and wants to exempt the database from some provisions of the Privacy Act. Privacy advocates argue individuals will have no protection against possible abuse and will have no recourse to correct inaccurate information.

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The Department of Homeland Security is compiling a broad new database that it says needs to spot potential terrorist threat. Privacy advocates say it's another example of the government gathering lots of information about individuals with no protection against possible abuse. The department wants to exempt the database from some provisions of the Privacy Act, as NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER reporting:

Here are just some of the things the Homeland Security Department wants in its database: information about people on watch lists with possible links to terrorism, information about ongoing law enforcement investigations, financial information, intelligence information, data from media reports or commercial databases that are, quote, "appropriate to identify and assess the nature of scope of terrorist threats to the homeland." David Sobel, general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, thinks the government's appetite is insatiable.

Mr. DAVID SOBEL (Electronic Privacy Information Center): This has now become fairly routine within the Department of Homeland Security. Basically, vacuum up every piece of information that they can get their hands on and then exempt themselves from the requirements of the Privacy Act.

FESSLER: He says similar exemptions exist for a database of individuals prohibited from flying or who need additional scrutiny at the airport. He finds the new proposal equally disturbing.

Mr. SOBEL: For instance, a citizen who has information about him or herself in this database is not entitled to get access to that information and is not entitled to correct any inaccurate information contained in the database. And those are very fundamental rights under the Privacy Act.

FESSLER: The Homeland Security Department would not provide any official to speak on tape about the database. But a spokeswoman calls the agency's proposal a standard national security exemption. The database will be used by the Homeland Security Operations Center, which monitors incidents around the country to determine if there's a potential threat. James J. Carafano of The Heritage Foundation says allowing public scrutiny would undermine those efforts.

Mr. JAMES J. CARAFANO (The Heritage Foundation): That's simply not the way we've ever operated in the realm of national security, that everybody needs to know everything, gets to judge if it's appropriate or not. I mean, let's be realistic. We have lots of classified databases in the federal government.

FESSLER: In fact, he says, much of the information compiled by the operations center will come from those databases. But privacy advocates say the Homeland Security plan is much broader. David Sobel notes that the department wants to be exempt from a Privacy Act requirement that the information collected be relevant and necessary.

Mr. SOBEL: Meaning that any odd piece of information, even if not arguably relevant to some legitimate law enforcement purpose, could find its way into this database.

FESSLER: But the Homeland Security Department states in a federal register notice that it's not always clear in advance what information will or won't be relevant to an investigation. The operations center has representatives from numerous agencies, including state and local law enforcement, and officials say they need flexibility to help connect the so-called dots. An agency spokeswoman says any data found to be irrelevant will be deleted from the files. Daniel Prieto of Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs says one problem is that the government is still struggling to find the best way to address both security and privacy post-9/11.

Mr. DANIEL PRIETO (Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs): As a nation, you want to ask yourself, `OK, everyone should be able to ask: Am I getting looked at today?' And the risk is the terrorist ends up being able to ask that, the risk is that the terrorists then changes their behavior, goes into hiding or something like that. What you have to do is convince the people.

FESSLER: Convince them, he says, that appropriate safeguards are in place.

Mr. PRIETO: The fear of misuse or the data getting lost is certainly legitimate. But I think that a lot of that can be dealt with with the proper oversight both from Congress and in the agency.

FESSLER: He says there are also ways to make the data anonymous and still allow authorities to spot suspicious patterns which can be investigated further. But privacy advocates say they're nervous because so little is known about the database and how it will be used and secured. Earlier this year, information collected by the Homeland Security Operations Center was accidentally posted on the Internet. The agency now says controls are in place to protect the information. Today is the last day for public comment on the department's plan. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to NPR News.

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