If the terrorism-wary U.S. government wants to use new surveillance technologies, Americans need assurance that Big Brother won't become a Peeping Tom, two senators warned.
Concerned about what they call nearly uncontrolled development of government snooping gadgets, Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and John Edwards (D-N.C.) are introducing legislation to establish a 17-member commission to recommend ways of balancing privacy rights and security needs.
"If we move forward thoughtfully, we can protect our security and preserve our privacy at the same time," Edwards said in a statement.
The committee, comprised of members of the government, law enforcement officials and privacy experts, would have 18 months to report its findings to Congress.
Schumer said he doubts that the proposal would stall other pending bills, because none of the others addresses the issue well. "So far, no one's come up with a balanced solution," said Schumer, whose office also released a statement on the legislation.
"From my standpoint, if they stop legislating on this area for the next 18 months, that's a net benefit to privacy," said Lee Tien, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) in San Francisco. The EFF has been outspoken about retaining privacy rights amid homeland security concerns.
A commission is necessary because of emerging surveillance technologies, the senators said. They pointed to public cameras, Internet data collection and an experimental X-ray scanner that they call the equivalent of an "electronic strip search."
"Because of terrorism and because of technology, every one of us is on the front lines," Schumer said. "The question isn't whether we should have the cameras. The question is where they should be targeted and how they should be operated. That's where this commission will recommend guidelines."
Privacy groups have responded positively to the concept.
"There are an array of post-Sept. 11 technologies that are being employed without public knowledge and oversight," said Chris Hoofnagle, legislative counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington. "We would think a commission [looking] into these issues would be appropriate."
EFF's Tien agreed, but said the key to any success will hinge on whether the commission has enough clout to request and study sensitive data.
The senators say they expect strong bipartisan support for their proposal. U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft responded positively to the idea, Schumer said.
Rather than introduce the plan as a new piece of legislation, the senators said they might try to attach it to existing legislation for creating a homeland security department. That legislation, already passed by the House, is expected to go before the Senate in early September when Congress returns from recess.
The House version of the bill includes several privacy protections. For example, it prohibits a national identification card and creates a special privacy adviser, the first position of its kind.
Both senators supported the Patriot Act, which has been challenged by privacy groups as giving too much power to law enforcement. But Schumer and Edwards said the purpose of their proposed commission isn't simply to give a forum to privacy advocates.
Instead, they urge a balance. Both senators, for example, said they would consider a national identification card. "I don't think we should be knee-jerk opposed to a national ID card," Edwards said.
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