Civil liberties groups including the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Center for Democracy and Technology are throwing their support behind a piece of legislation that would require U.S. agencies to report to Congress about the personal information they collect.
Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, introduced the Citizens’ Protection in Federal Databases Act of 2003 on Tuesday. The bill would require federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies to disclose when they subscribe to commercial databases of personal information.
Wyden’s legislation would require reports from U.S. agencies including the U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Department of Defense and U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. The reports would have to disclose agency contracts to obtain commercial data, how the agencies analyze the data and the privacy guidelines used by the agencies.
The bill also prohibits all federal agencies from conducting searches of commercial data to create hypothetical scenarios of future terrorist attacks.
Wyden argued that no comprehensive privacy laws now exist that regulate the federal government’s access to, or use of, public or private databases. “This legislation would hold the government accountable to Congress and the American people when federal agencies seek to dig through an American’s most personal information,” he said in a statement.
Representatives of the U.S. Department of Justice and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), home to the much-criticized Terrorism Information Awareness (TIA) research project, did not respond to requests for comments on Wyden’s bill.
In January Wyden introduced an amendment blocking funding for TIA until it could be reviewed by Congress. In mid-July, the U.S. Senate voted to block funding for TIA. One of the goals of TIA, according to DARPA, is to create hypothetical scenarios as a way to pinpoint possible terrorist activities.
Wyden expects support in the Senate for his legislation, said a Wyden spokeswoman. “It’s clear that Senator Wyden’s colleagues share his concerns about some of TIA’s initiatives,” she said.
Both the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) issued statements in support of Wyden’s bill. The legislation is a first step in recognizing that new laws are needed to protect privacy, the CDT said, because “serious privacy concerns” arise when law enforcement and intelligence organizations use data originally collected for commercial reasons.
“Some government officials have suggested that terrorists could be found by dreaming up scenarios and trolling vast databases looking for suspicious conduct,” CDT President Jerry Berman said in a statement. “The bill says that is just too risky and too speculative. There should be some particular suspicion, some basis in fact, before agencies search these commercial databases.”
The EFF said the Wyden bill will help ensure that the U.S. government has appropriate guidelines for gathering data. “We need to make sure the emphasis is in place so that (law enforcement agencies) can test data but they’re not just using people private information without them knowing about it,” said Lisa Dean, the EFF’s Washington, D.C., policy liaison.