Left, Right Push for New Commercial-Data Laws

Policy advocates on opposite ends of the political spectrum have teamed up to press for new laws restraining the government's use of commercial data.

A critical mass of policy advocates on opposite ends of the political spectrum have teamed up to press for new laws restraining the governments use of commercial data, fearing that technology is pushing data usage faster than the legal framework can protect privacy, accuracy and network security.

Even with the Privacy Act of 1974 in place, the current administration is not demonstrating a respect for data accuracy, seeking exclusions for new government systems, said Ari Schwartz, associate director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, in Washington.

"Were seeing a lot more of the public-sector databases exempting themselves from accuracy," Schwartz said, citing as an example the governments CAPPS II, or Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System, designed for airline transportation safety but now also slated for law enforcement uses.

There are no restrictions that would prevent aggressive surveillance programs from being used domestically, according to Robert Barr, privacy advocate and a former U.S. congressman from Georgia.

"Its bad enough when the government has a paper file on people," Barr said, alluding to efforts during the 1960s to compile dossiers on law-abiding citizens. "In the Digital Age, there is virtually no limit to the damage the government could do with information."

Since leaving Congress, the Georgia Republican has worked as a privacy policy consultant for the American Civil Liberties Union. He is urging Congress to pass the Defense of Privacy Act, a bill resembling one that he sponsored while in Congress, requiring federal agencies to assess the privacy impact of proposed actions.

The governments reliance on commercial data also affects the balance of power, Barr said. "It puts private industry in cahoots with government so there is no check at all on the gathering and dissemination of private information," he said.

The administration has responded to criticism by changing the names of its controversial initiatives. Data mining under the Total Information Awareness program is now called "factual data analysis" under the Terrorism Information Awareness program.

But those cosmetic adjustments are not enough for privacy-concerned lawmakers. Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Ark., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., this month introduced legislation that would limit the FBIs ability to look at sensitive, personal information, including medical, library and Internet records, without demonstrating specific suspicion to a judge. It would also require congressional approval for data mining.

Separately, Wyden introduced a bill that would require law enforcement to disclose contracts for commercial data.