PALO ALTO, Calif.-- For the first time in more that a decade, civil libertarians and compu
PALO ALTO, Calif.-- For the first time in more that a decade,
civil libertarians and computer professionals are banding
together to stop what many consider a Big Brotherish attempt
by the FBI to keep track of peoples lives.
A Palo Alto-based group, Computer Professionals for Social
Responsibility, has been instrumental in preventing the FBI
from expanding its data base to include information such as
credit card transactions, telephone calls and airline
"We need computer professionals acting like public
interest lawyers to make sure the FBI is acting responsibly"
said Jerry Berman, chief legislative counsel for the American
Civil Liberties Union.
Mr Berman was part of a panel Saturday at Stanford
University that went head-to-head with the FBI's assistant
director for technical services, William Bayse, over
expansion of the National Crime Information Center (NCIC).
Law enforcement officials use the NCIC system's 19.4
million files about 700,000 times a day for routine checks on
everyone from traffic violators to Peace Corps applicants.
"The FBI would like us to believe that they are protecting
us from the hick Alabama Sheriff who wants to misuse the
system, " said Brian Harvey, a computer expert at the
University of California, Berkeley, "The FBI is the problem."
Not since the fight to pass the Privacy Act of 1974 have
computer experts, civil libertarians and legislators come
together on the issue of citizen rights and access to
In the early 1970s, the government's efforts to monitor
more than 125,000 war protesters sparked concerns about
privacy. The 1974 law limited the movement of information
exchanged by federal agencies.
But computers were not so sophisticated then, and the
privacy act has several exceptions for law enforcement
agencies, said Marc Rotenberg, one of the computer group's
experts on the data base.
Two years ago, the FBI announced its plan to expand the
data base, and came up with 240 features to include a sort of
"wish list" culled from the kinds of information law
enforcement officials who use the system would like to have.
Rep. Don Edwards (D-Calif.) balked at moving ahead with
the plan without suggestions from an independent group, and
put together a panel that includes members of the Palo Alto
Working with Mr. Bayse, FBI officials eventually agreed to
recommend a triuncated redesign of the data base. It drops
the most controversial features, such as plans to connect the
data base to records of other government agencies - including
the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Internal Revenue
Service, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Social
Security Administration and the State Department's passport office.
FBI director William S. Sessions could reject those
recommendations, however, and include all or part of the wish
list in the redesign. he is expected to decide soon just how
much to expand the system.
Based in the Hoover Building in Washington, D.C., the
computer system already fills a room half the size of a
football field. The $20 million to $40 million redesign will
"establish record-keeping at the FBI for the next 10 years,"
said Mr. Rotenberg. The 20-year-old system has 12 main
files containing information on stolen vehicles, missing
people, criminal arrests and convictions, people who are
suspected of plotting against top-level government officials
and people for whom arrest warrants have been issued.
In Los Angeles, police squad cars have computer terminals
connected to NCIC data that allow them to check a person's
fingerprints on the scene.
But the system is far from infallible - and that's what
worries civil libertarians.
One Michigan man, Terry Dean Rogan, was arrested five
times for crimes he did not commit. His wallet had been
stolen and he was repeatedly confused with a murder suspect
who had used Mr. Rogan's identification. Mr. Rogan sued, and
eventually received a $55,000 settlement from Los Angeles
because the city had failed to remove his name from the data
"If the informationis inaccurate or incomplete, it creates
a stigmatizing effect,"
Mr. Rotenberg said. "If you're recorded in the NCIC,
there's a presumption of criminal activity."
Mr. Bayse told the audience Saturday that the system is
inefficient and outdated, and that the FBI wants to improve
the technology to prohibit occurrences such as the Rogan
"We need a new system, if nothing else, to implement
internal security and privacy controls as a stopper for
someone maliciously trying to take information out of the
system," he said.
Civil libertarians are not arguing about the system's
usefulness, but many are wary about the FBI's motives and
about safeguarding sensitive information.
"Computer systems today are very vulnerable," said
panelist Peter Neumann, an employee of the SRI International
"think tank" in Menlo Park and member of the computer group.
"There are trap doors. Even the best-designed systems have
crackable internal controls."
The FBI spends about $1 million a year auditing the system
to correct inaccuracies and has managed to reduce its error
rate by 25 percent. But evey Mr. Bayse agreed that it's not
"With up to 900,000 queries a day, lots of things can
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