Washington struggles with privacy versus security

Controversy arose at conferences this week, over whether technological measures designed to protect the US from terrorism should...

Controversy arose at conferences this week, over whether technological measures designed to protect the US from terrorism should proceed unhindered or if such measures as data-mining programs must be halted until there are protections to civil liberties in place.

Speaking at a congressional internet meeting on security against terrorism and privacy, Paul Rosenzweig, a senior legal research at think-tank Heritage Foundation, said that putting the brakes on technologies like the proposed Total Information Awareness (TIA) programme in the US Department of Defense is not the answer to ensuring that technology does not violate privacy.

Lance Hoffman, a computer science professor, questioned whether laws passed by Congress could keep pace with latest technologies, including TIA and the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System (CAPPS II) proposed by the US Transportation Security Administration.

He cited the example of file-trading on the internet, where proposed laws have not been able to stop the illegal downloading of music.

Software supplier webMethods also hosted a panel discussion, "Homeland security: Can technology make us safer?", which featured five national security experts.

James Gilmore, chairman of the National Advisory Commission on Terrorism, said that technology could make us safer, but he questioned the cost to civil liberties.

"Today, we have the capability of putting a camera almost everywhere," Gilmore said. "Do you believe that you would conduct yourself differently if you were on camera than if you weren't?"

Although no one can guarantee a country's total security, technology could potentially come close, Gilmore noted. "You'd give up everything by way of individuality, privacy, anonymity... and even then you would not have total security."

Gilmore urged the technology executives to keep privacy and other civil liberties in mind when they design systems to protect against terrorism.

"I believe that as citizens we have an obligation... to try to put together both security and freedom at the same time," he said.

But James Woolsey, a former director of the US Central Intelligence Agency, said the security measures the US government is currently taking are much less intrusive than actions taken by other war-time presidents.

As that war drags on, US citizens may have to make some compromises between civil liberties and security, Woolsey said. Technology such as data mining and airline passenger profiling can play a positive role. But Woolsey also warned that lawmakers and US citizens need to keep an eye on privacy and other rights.

When security measures fail, "people get scared", he said. "When the country gets scared, even very good leaders can do some things we look back on in future generations and say 'How in the world could they have done that?'"

Mark Forman, chief information officer of the Bush administration, said the US is making progress in the homeland security arena, particularly with technology security. Forman noted the administration's goal of having 80% of the federal government's technology assets certified or accredited by the end of 2003.


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