Panel raises questions about government data sharing

A group of experts in technology policy and civil liberties pondered the problem of government information sharing Tuesday and raised more questions than they answered. The panelists included Jim Dempsey, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, Tim Edgar of the American Civil Liberties Union, and Kim Taipale of the Center for Advanced Studies in Science and Technology Policy. Dan Gallington of the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies moderated the panel discussion which was hosted by the Potomac Institute. Aside from the current congressional debate about naming a national intelligence director and giving that person budgetary authority, one of the big elements of efforts to overhaul the intelligence system involves how information on terrorism-related activity can be collected, stored, accessed and shared across all levels of government. In August, President Bush issued an executive order that aimed to improve the information-sharing practices of the intelligence and homeland security communities. The order directs the attorney general, Homeland Security secretary and director of central intelligence to recommend "executive-branch-wide collection and sharing requirements, procedures, and guidelines for terrorism information" from both publicly available sources and non-governmental databases. At the forum, Dempsey said the recommendations should focus on particular suspicions that the government may have about individuals. For example, he suggested that law enforcement agencies and investigators should only have access to the identities of people in government databases if their investigations if they have probable cause to suspect those people of crimes. Gallington said he rejected the idea that the executive order focuses on narrow solutions. Rather, he said he hopes the recommendations will involve some creative thinking and solutions to the issue of government-wide information sharing. The ACLU's Edgar agreed with Dempsey on the need for the government to base its investigations and use of shared data on particular suspicions. He cited former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover's wiretapping of Martin Luther King in the past as an example of how the process of unchecked surveillance can be abused. Edgar also posed various questions about current efforts to change information-sharing practices, including questions about the scope of the information collected and the limits of sharing it over government-wide networks. He also questioned how individuals would be able to correct mistakes and how much access private data companies would have to government-collected data. "To me, that's one of the biggest potential areas of greatest abuse," he said.