U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), one of Congress' leading critics of the Pentagon's controversial data mining project known as the Terrorist Information Awareness (TIA), has introduced legislation that would hold government agencies accountable for the use of private and personal information.
Currently, there are no comprehensive privacy laws regulating the federal government's access to, or use of, public and private databases. The Wyden proposal would require the Attorney General, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of Homeland Security, the Secretary of Treasury, the Director of Central Intelligence, and the Director of the FBI to provide to Congress a detailed report explaining the use of databases for law enforcement or intelligence purposes.
Additionally, the bill prohibits the use of databases to explore "hypothetical scenarios." Under the legislation, no government agency may conduct a search for national security, intelligence, or law enforcement purposes based solely on a hypothetical scenario of who may commit a crime or pose a threat to national security.
According to Wyden, the prohibition would prevent government agencies from trolling through bank records, online purchases, and travel plans without regard to actual intelligence or law enforcement information.
"We cannot stand by and allow the government to shine a spotlight onto the personal records of law abiding citizens who have a constitutionally protected right to privacy," said Wyden. "It is Congress' duty to find out on behalf of all Americans what federal agencies are hoping to do with their personal information."
The TIA program seeks to capture the "information signature" of people in order to track potential terrorists and criminals. Originally called the Total Information Awareness program, critics have called it a domestic spy program and the Senate, led by Wyden, has temporarily blocked funding for the project.
In February, Wyden won passage of an amendment requiring the Defense Department to report to Congress on the cost, scope, and privacy and civil liberties implications of its TIA program. Wyden said the report, delivered to Congress in May, failed to detail how TIA would adequately protect the private and personal information of law-abiding Americans.
"Now, nearly two years after the tragedies of September 11th, the Congress has the opportunity and the duty to strike the proper balance between security and civil liberties," said Wyden. "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."
Wyden was joined at a press conference announcing the new legislation by a broad range of civil liberties and privacy groups including People for the American Way, the Free Congress Foundation, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Electronic Privacy Information Council, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Center for Democracy and Technology.