The Senate Judiciary Committee met Wednesday to hear whether government databases that store information about U.S. citizens violate the privacy rights of U.S. citizens. VOA's Sean Maroney reports from Washington.
The incoming chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, made clear his priorities by devoting the committee's first hearing of the year to an examination of the data-mining computer programs used by the government.
U.S. authorities say the programs, by enabling them to search through large computer banks of information, help them to identify terrorists or criminals.
But Leahy expressed concern that by using the programs the Bush administration has ignored privacy laws, sidestepped Congress and violated citizens' right to privacy.
"All I want is the administration to follow the law," he said. "They want us to follow the law. They ought to follow the law... We all want to stop terrorists, but we don't want to make our own government treat us - all of us - like we are terrorists."
One example of the data gathered is the list that screens airline passengers. Custom officials can share assessments of people traveling abroad with domestic and foreign governments as well as some private contractors.
Once listed as a possible terrorist, a person can face penalties ranging from the loss of a job to deportation or arrest.
The Center for Democracy and Technology's Leslie Harris told the committee that the designations often are kept secret, which means that the persons named as possible terrorist threats are not able to contest the designation.
"People are walking around with a risk assessment that they don't know, that's secret, that can be shared all over the government for any other purpose and if they are prejudiced by that, they don't know," he said.
Harris also said that a person mistakenly identified as a possible terrorist has little or no opportunity to correct the damage.
The CATO Institute's Information policy director, Jim Harper, added that it is hard to track which patterns make a terrorist.
"The result will be that you will get a lot of false positives - that is you'll find that many people who are not terrorists are suspects," he said. "You'll waste a lot of resources going after these people. You'll follow a lot of dead ends. And very importantly, you'll threaten the privacy and civil liberties of innocent law abiding Americans."
In defense of data-mining, the Heritage Foundation's James Carafano said that these programs are only automating what police officers routinely do in the field.
"When a cop goes on the street, he's collecting information every second," he said. "He's looking for behavior that's out of place."
"He pulls a car over and everything else. And that leads to a whole thing. So there, he's not starting with a suspect, yet he's continually gathering freely accessible information," he added.
During the hearing, Senator Leahy announced the reintroduction of his Federal Agency Data-Mining Reporting Act, which would require federal agencies using data-mining programs to report annually to Congress on their use and explain how privacy would be protected.
Leahy had previously introduced the act in 2005, but it died in committee.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is scheduled to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee next week to discuss who owns the data being collected.