Sen. Susan M. Collins | Security Technology Can't Ignore Civil Liberties

The use of technology in counterterrorism must always be guided by an unwavering respect for civil liberties.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) is the chairwoman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. As leader of the committee that oversees the Homeland Security Department, Collins has framed legislation, led hearings and commissioned investigations of various aspects of homeland security IT.

The place where information technology and personal privacy meet has long been a point of friction. With every new advance in how information is gathered, shared and used, come concerns'valid concerns'of a consequent advance into the world that British author George Orwell described: the world of Big Brother and his Thought Police.

Simply put, one of the greatest challenges of homeland security and counterterrorism is to ensure that our response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks does not lead us into the nightmare described in the book '1984.'

From the start, my work on these issues has been guided by this principle: Making America safer is a fundamental responsibility of the federal government, but preserving the civil liberties of the American people is equally important. I am committed to balancing these seemingly conflicting principles.

I say seemingly, because I believe that security and freedom is not a zero-sum game: The enhancement of one need not diminish the other. Given the nature of the terrorists we confront today and their repressive worldview, it is clear that we cannot have civil liberties without security. And given the nature of the American people and our personal relationship with freedom, it is equally clear that we cannot have security, in the truly American sense of the word, without civil liberties.

IT as a weapon

Certainly, use of information technology can be a threat to civil liberties. Consider just a few of the specific counterterrorism sectors in which IT plays an increasingly important role: personal identification, financial transactions, travel, border security, the integration of databases across federal, state and local government agencies to promote information sharing. The civil liberty vulnerabilities in each of these sectors, and in a great many more, are readily apparent.

Rather than threaten civil liberties, IT can and must be harnessed to protect them. Such cutting-edge technologies as biometrics, nanotechnology and advanced sensors are becoming invaluable in detecting threats and thwarting terrorist plots before they can be carried out.

The challenge is to develop and deploy these technologies in such a way that protecting civil liberties is a precondition, not an afterthought.

The challenge to Congress is to provide diligent oversight and to be relentless in our demand for accountability. That is why the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee created the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties in the legislation that created the Homeland Security Department in 2002.

The Committee supported the strengthening of this office by the department's first secretary, Tom Ridge, and we made civil liberties a central focus during our confirmation hearing early this year for his successor, Michael Chertoff. In late July 2004, our committee was assigned the task of creating legislation to implement the intelligence reform recommendations in the just-released report of the 9/11 Commission.

Throughout this process, the protection of civil liberties was always at the core of our work to rebuild an intelligence structure designed for the Cold War into one designed to meet the threats of the 21st century.

As a result, the final version of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 included two robust civil-liberties provisions I authored: one to further strengthen the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties at DHS; the other to create a Privacy and Civil Liberties Board within the executive branch.
This board, which is now taking shape, has considerable authority. First, it is to advise the president and other federal officials at the front end when they are proposing or implementing policies related to efforts to protect our nation against terrorism. This ensures that the protection of privacy and civil liberties is appropriately considered before the fact.

Second, the board is to investigate and review government actions at the back end'that is, to assess the implementation of particular policies to see whether the government is acting with proper respect for privacy and civil liberties.
This ensures that the American people are provided an avenue for prompt and effective recourse when the abridgement of rights is in question.

Finally, our requirement that the heads of federal agencies involved in the efforts designate one or more senior officials to serve as privacy and civil-liberties officers for the agencies, in order to foster an ethic of civil liberties protection throughout our counterterrorism and intelligence community.

Protecting Liberty

The use of technology in counterterrorism must always be guided by an unwavering respect for civil liberties. At the same time, however, it must be recognized that the ultimate high-tech abusers of civil liberties are the terrorists. It is they who seek to use technology'for example, by attacking the cybersecurity of such critical systems as power plants, chemical facilities and banking'to disrupt our society, to finance their operations and to establish a regime of fear.

Their abuse of technology would make Orwell's terrifying vision a reality. The principles guiding our use will keep Orwell's vision where it belongs, in the realm of fiction. n

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