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Kiss your right to privacy goodbye

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Pentagon Plans a Computer System That Would Peek at Personal Data of

Americans

By JOHN MARKOFF

The Pentagon is constructing a computer system that could create a

vast electronic dragnet, searching for personal information as part

of the hunt for terrorists around the globe — including the United

States.

As the director of the effort, Vice Adm. John M. Poindexter, has

described the system in Pentagon documents and in speeches, it will

provide intelligence 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.

Historically, military and intelligence agencies have not been

permitted to spy on Americans without extraordinary legal

authorization. But Admiral Poindexter, the former national security

adviser in the Reagan administration, has argued that the government

needs broad new powers to process, store and mine billions of minute

details of electronic life in the United States.

Admiral Poindexter, who has described the plan in public documents

and speeches but declined to be interviewed, has said that the

government needs to "break down the stovepipes" that separate

commercial and government databases, allowing teams of intelligence

agency analysts to hunt for hidden patterns of activity with powerful

computers.

"We must become much more efficient and more clever in the ways we

find new sources of data, mine information from the new and old,

generate information, make it available for analysis, convert it to

knowledge, and create actionable options," he said in a speech in

California earlier this year.

Admiral Poindexter quietly returned to the government in January to

take charge of the Office of Information Awareness at the Defense

Advanced Research Projects Agency, known as Darpa. The office is

responsible for developing new surveillance technologies in the wake

of the Sept. 11 attacks.

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 that

is 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.

The possibility that the system might be deployed domestically to let

intelligence officials look into commercial transactions worries

civil liberties proponents.

"This could be the perfect storm for civil liberties in America,"

said Marc Rotenberg, director of the Electronic Privacy Information

Center in Washington "The vehicle is the Homeland Security Act, the

technology is Darpa and the agency is the F.B.I. The outcome is a

system of national surveillance of the American public."

Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld has been briefed on the

project by Admiral Poindexter and the two had a lunch to discuss it,

according to a Pentagon spokesman.

"As part of our development process, we hope to coordinate with a

variety of organizations, to include the law enforcement community,"

a Pentagon spokeswoman said.

An F.B.I. official, who spoke on the condition that he not be

identified, said the bureau had had preliminary discussions with the

Pentagon about the project but that no final decision had been made

about what information the F.B.I. might add to the system.

A spokesman for the White House Office of Homeland Security, Gordon

Johndroe, said officials in the office were not familiar with the

computer project and he declined to discuss concerns raised by the

project's critics without knowing more about it.

He referred all questions to the Defense Department, where officials

said they could not address civil liberties concerns because they too

were not familiar enough with the project.

Some members of a panel of computer scientists and policy experts who

were asked by the Pentagon to review the privacy implications this

summer said terrorists might find ways to avoid detection and that

the system might be easily abused.

"A lot of my colleagues are uncomfortable about this and worry about

the potential uses that this technology might be put, if not by this

administration then by a future one," said Barbara Simon, a computer

scientist who is past president of the Association of Computing

Machinery. "Once you've got it in place you can't control it."

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