NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Pentagon Computer Could Get Personal With Americans

November 11, 2002

The Defense Department is constructing a computer system that could create a vast electronic dragnet, searching for information as part of the hunt for terrorists. It will provide law enforcement analysts and law enforcement officials with instant access to information from Internet mail and calling records to credit card and banking transactions and travel documents -- without a search warrant.

Without safeguards the system could be deployed domestically to let intelligence officials look into private commercial transactions, a prospect that troubles civil libertarians.

  • In order to deploy such a system, known as Total Information Awareness, new legislation would be needed -- some of which has been proposed by the Bush administration in the Homeland Security Act now before Congress.
  • That legislation would amend the Privacy Act of 1974 -- which was intended to limit what government agencies could do with private information.
  • Officials of the Federal Bureau of Investigation have held preliminary discussions with Pentagon officials about what information that agency might contribute to the system.
  • Some computer scientists and policy experts are concerned that terrorists might find ways to evade detection and that the system might be easily abused.

Historically, military and intelligence agencies have not been permitted to spy on Americans without extraordinary legal authorization.

But Vice Adm. John Poindexter, director of the effort, argues the government needs broad new powers to process, store and mine billions of minute details of electronic life in the United States.

Source: John Markoff, "Pentagon Plans a Computer System that Would Peek at Personal Data of Americans," New York Times, November 9, 2002.


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