Washington struggles with privacy vs. security

Conferences explore privacy issues inherent in high-tech security

WASHINGTON -- At two conferences on technology and homeland security here Thursday, controversy arose over whether technological measures designed to protect the U.S. from terrorism should proceed unhindered or if such things as data-mining programs must be halted until there are protections to civil liberties in place.

Responding to a question about how to ensure technology is not misused to violate privacy, Paul Rosenzweig, a senior legal research follow at conservative think-tank Heritage Foundation, said Thursday that putting the brakes on technologies such as the proposed Total Information Awareness (TIA) program in the U.S. Department of Defense is not the answer.

"I think the answer ... is not prohibition, but you folks out here: extensive oversight, use of the mechanisms of Congress and the courts to restrain the misuses of power," Rosenzweig said to a room full of congressional staffers at a Congressional Internet Caucus luncheon on security against terrorism and privacy.

But Lance Hoffman, a computer science professor at George Washington University, questioned whether laws passed by Congress could keep pace with new technologies, including TIA and the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System (CAPPS II) proposed by the U.S. 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.

"[Technology researchers] are pretty much under the radar screen until we do something that so changes things that we technologists are then noticed all of a sudden by legislators," Hoffman said. "Let me tell you, by that time, it's too late."

In addition to the lunch session at the Capitol, hours after the U.S. fired the opening shots in a war against Iraq, software vendor webMethods hosted a panel discussion, "Homeland security: Can technology make us safer?" featuring five national security experts Thursday morning.

James Gilmore, chairman of the National Advisory Commission on Terrorism and a former governor of Virginia, answered the conference's main question with an "obviously," 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? I think so ... it wouldn't necessarily be something legal or illegal, but it would be different."

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 in the audience 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. "That, it seems to me, is the great goal we as Americans have now: trying to figure out how we can maintain our character and values as Americans while at the same time we apply technology to make us safer. That is a challenge that isn't much being discussed, and I don't think we have very many solutions."

But James Woolsey, a former director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, said the security measures the U.S. government is currently taking are much less intrusive than actions taken by other war-time presidents from Abraham Lincoln to Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt put Japanese Americans in concentration camps during World War II, Woolsey noted.

"We are nowhere near, as far as I'm concerned, constitutional limitations in terms of what has been done so far in this war," he said. "We may have done some unwise things, that's a different question. We are going to have to make some other hard choices, as time goes on, about reconciling civil liberties and security, and realizing that, while we wish they didn't conflict in a war, they do."

He called the current war between Mideast terrorists and the United States World War IV -- with World War III being the Cold War -- and he predicted this war could last for decades. He pegged the start of World War IV at about 10 years ago, when Muslim fundamentalists began attacking U.S. targets.

As that war drags on, U.S. citizens may have to make some compromises between civil liberties and security, Woolsey noted, and technology such as data mining and airline passenger profiling can play a positive role. But Woolsey also warned that lawmakers and U.S. 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?'"

Back at the noon luncheon, Jim Dempsey, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, raised concerns over whether data-mining efforts like TIA will actually work. It's easy for Amazon.com to predict what books a customer will like, based on the preferences of millions of other customers, but terrorism databases wouldn't have millions of people to use to determine motives, he said.

"It's a very much harder problem trying to determine illegal activity," he said, compared to book preferences. "The very first question is a question of effectiveness."

Much of the webMethods conference ventured away from technology and into politics, with former U.S. Senator Gary Hart, a potential Democratic presidential candidate, accusing the George W. Bush administration of dragging its heels on taking security measures such as creating the Department of Homeland Security. Hart, co-chairman of the U.S. Commission on National Security for the 21st Century, said his group recommended such a department two years ago, before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S.

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


Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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