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Anti-Terror Technology Sparks Civil Liberties Debate - 2003-01-17

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is expected to spend close to $6 billion on information technology in the next two years. The money is designed to help the new agency detect, prevent and respond to terrorist attacks against the United States. But some experts, including top officials in the new department, are warning there must be a balance between gathering enormous amounts of information and protecting the civil liberties of the American people.

The widespread use of technology to gather information about people is now part of everyday life in America. From police departments to ordinary businesses, this technology is used to examine everything from criminal records to shopping preferences.

James Gilmore is the former governor of the state of Virginia and now heads a U.S. commission studying ways to fight terrorism. Mr. Gilmore says analysts are worried that a terrorist attack on vulnerable information infrastructure could be combined with a physical attack on an American target. "The concern the commission has addressed over the last several years is the risk that the enemy will attack the internet or communications computing simultaneously with a conventional attack or a weapons of mass destruction attack. We rely a great deal on the internet and on information communications to be in a position to prevent and respond to circumscribe an attack or also to be in a position to respond and minimize the impact of it," he says. "If those communications facilities through computing and the internet could be disabled, then the impact would be magnified and enhanced."

Analysts say improvements in information gathering and dissemination technology could prove to be one of the most effective weapons in the war on terror. But, the technology has also raised privacy issues and concerns about the potential for abuse.

Lee Holcomb is the Director of Infostructure at the White House Office of Homeland Security. Mr. Holcomb says more than 3,000 businesses and individuals have contacted his office in recent months, and many have offered ideas to use improved technology in the war against terrorism.

He says, however, some proposals could violate basic rights. "We have had people approach us with concepts to implant chips in humans much the way we track animals in the wild," he says. "This is getting very much into the area of taking away human civil liberties and we have to balance these civil liberties with the proper steps to go after improved security."

Mr. Gilmore says balancing the government's need for information to fight terrorists with the individual liberties of U.S. citizens is perhaps the country's greatest challenge since the Cold War. "The trick here is to find the best possible approach, no matter what it is, for counter-terrorism information gathering," he says. "Utilize technology and communication to make sure that information could be properly shared. Make sure that cyber-security is in place so that it is not invaded by the enemy or anybody else for that matter that can put it out on the streets. And do all of it while maintaining America's virtues and civil liberties. Good luck because that is the challenge that is before us today."

Mr. Gilmore's commission has recommended that the government establish a domestic intelligence agency to collect information about potential terrorist attacks and report directly to President Bush. He says the proposed agency would use advanced technology to coordinate information about possible future attacks.

A joint committee of the U.S. Congress has taken a different approach, recommending the appointment of a cabinet-level intelligence chief.

Mr. Gilmore says despite the increasing interest in using information technology to fight terrorists, protecting democracy while preserving individual freedoms of the American people is paramount to achieving victory in the war on terrorism.