Senate panel votes for Hill oversight of passenger-screening system

As defense and privacy experts prepared to debate the government's increased use of technologies to mine data for terrorist activity on Thursday, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., announced committee passage of his amendment to provide congressional oversight of an airline-passenger screening system.

"I think the debate has just begun," Wyden told the Forum on Technology and Innovation, referring to the increased attention in Congress to civil liberties matters related to surveillance technologies.

This is Wyden's second amendment on data mining this year. Last month he sponsored an amendment in the omnibus appropriations law for fiscal 2003; it requires a report within 90 days on the Total Information Awareness (TIA) program being studied by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and requires eventual congressional approval of any technology arising from the research project.

The amendment approved by the Senate Commerce Committee by voice vote on Thursday would require congressional oversight of the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System (CAPPS II) being developed by the Transportation Security Administration. Mirroring his TIA amendment, it would require a report on the project within 90 days, this time from TSA's parent agency, the Homeland Security Department.

According to the amendment-approved as part of an air-cargo security bill (S. 165), the report on CAPPS II must address several issues. These include: how long collected data will be maintained and who will have access to it; how TSA will treat the data; what role airlines will play; what safeguards will be implemented to ensure only official use of the information; what efforts will be undertaken to mitigate errors and provide procedural recourse to passengers wrongly barred from a flight; and what oversight procedures will exist for civil liberties.

Wyden said in an interview afterward that he is "optimistic" about the prospects for the CAPPS II amendment because no member of Congress opposed his earlier TIA amendment. "I think the message here is that these issues are zooming up on the congressional radar," he said.

Wyden said Defense appears to be on track to deliver its report on TIA in May. He met with DARPA Director Tony Tether, who told Wyden that in hindsight that he would handle the TIA issue differently.

Defense insider Richard Perle, an American Enterprise Institute fellow, shared that view. "I regret there was not a fuller dialogue" between government officials and concerned parties, he said. "I think the Defense Department did the wrong thing in this case" by being unresponsive when the first questions arose about the project.

But he said the project could work because it would be held to the same surveillance standards as wiretapping, which requires a court order. The TIA technology would collect anonymous information, only revealing names when there is reason for suspicion, he said.

Jim Dempsey, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, listed surveillance technologies being developed or in use by government and said civil liberties do not have to be jeopardized for them to work against terrorism. Dempsey said Congress "has an important role ... in insisting we get this right."

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