Senate votes for privacy study on agencies' data-mining use

Federal agencies that use data-mining technologies will be required to submit a report to Congress on the privacy impact of their activities under the Senate-passed fiscal 2005 Homeland Security Department spending bill.

An amendment offered by Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis., was unanimously accepted. The Senate passed the bill, H.R. 4567, on Tuesday on a 93-0 vote. The House version of the bill, passed in June, does not contain such an amendment.

"At the same time that the [Bush] administration has been making it harder and harder for the public to learn what government agencies are up to, the government and its private sector partners have been quietly building more and more databases to learn and store more information about the American people," Leahy said in a statement.

The amendment essentially adopted the approach of S. 1544, a Feingold-Leahy bill that would have required annual data-mining reports. As amended, the appropriations bill would only require a single report to Congress, within 90 days of the end of fiscal year that ends on Sept. 30, 2005.

Leahy said the amendment would not end any existing program or impose new regulations over how programs are administered. "This is about accountability," he said. "The American people deserve to know what kind of information is gathered about them and how federal agencies intend to store and use it."

A Leahy aide said that the senator "is open to the concept that certain forms of data mining might enhance security. His concern is that whenever you are going to use the technology, you put in place protections for people's privacy."

The administration's data-mining programs have proven controversial with Congress in the past. An amendment by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., in an appropriations bill passed in February 2003 required the Defense Department to address the privacy impact of a program initially dubbed "Total Information Awareness (TIA)."

The May 2003 report required by that bill left Congress unsatisfied, and the 2004 appropriations bill barred all funding for TIA-related activities.

In June 2004, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved an amendment by Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., that would have barred funding for an updated version of the Computer Assistant Passenger Pre-Screening System (CAPPS II), designed to track air travelers, until privacy concerns were addressed. That measure was also included in the House-passed version of this year's Homeland Security measure.

Previous legislation required the Government Accountability Office, to study the program, and it received a poor rating from the investigative arm of Congress, then known as the General Accounting Office.

In July, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge announced that the CAPPS II program was being scrapped, and a revised version of the program, dubbed "Secure Flight," was launched in August. It is unclear whether the program will engage in data-mining of the sort envisioned for CAPPS II.

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