Proposal would link agencies' funding to privacy protections

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Tuesday introduced a bill that would make federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies' funding contingent upon reporting to Congress how they use citizens' private information. The measure also would prevent the use of that information for hypothetical counter-terrorist searches of commercial databases.

"I believe so strongly that it is possible to fight terrorism ferociously without gutting our civil liberties," Wyden said at a press conference.

Wyden said the congressional investigation of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks makes clear that the focus of intelligence agencies should be on more efficient use of information than on conducting "virtual goose chases." Under his bill, searches would have to be based on suspicion, a point emphasized by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Wyden said the measure, which would require the reports within 60 days of the bill's enactment, also is necessary to prevent people from mistakenly being subjected to investigations based on erroneous information or outdated terrorist watch lists. Wyden intends to push the legislation in September, possibly as part of an appropriations measure, according to a Senate aide.

Wyden said he hopes the bill will enjoy the same kind of bipartisan support as similar language blocking funding for the Defense Department's Terrorism Information Awareness data-mining project. That Senate-passed language is part of the fiscal 2004 Defense appropriations bill now the subject of talks with House lawmakers.

Civil-liberties advocates hailed Wyden's new bill. "It would for the first time provide baseline information on the kinds of information the government is using, how it's being used and what procedures, if any, are in place to ensure that some measure of fair-information practices apply," said David Sobel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).

Sobel said government use of private-sector databases has increased 9,600 percent in the past 10 years. "Increasingly in recent years, government is not always collecting and maintaining the information it relies upon," he said.

"We all need to understand the scope of the problem before prescribing solutions," Sobel said. Since 2001, EPIC has been involved in a lawsuit with the Justice and Treasury departments over a Freedom of Information Act request it filed to learn more about government use of private data. The case is ongoing but has revealed information such as a $67 million government contract with the data-collection agency ChoicePoint, he said.

Jerry Berman of the Center for Democracy and Technology said, "Serious privacy concerns arise when law enforcement and intelligence agencies rely on information that was originally collected for commercial purposes but no one even knows what data the government is buying from the commercial warehouses, the marketers and credit agencies."

Lisa Dean, Washington policy liaison for the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF), said the main provision EFF is concerned about "calls for accountability standards."

People for the American Way President Ralph Neas said, "The greatest victory for terrorists would be for us to undermine the Constitution and the Bill of Rights." The Free Congress Foundation also supports the bill.

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