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Privacy advocates fight for ground lost after 9/11

Five years after surrendering privacy for security, many challenge the scope of US government domestic surveillance.

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Against it: Civil libertarians say some NYPD actions are blatant violations of a local 1971 accord that restricts police surveillance of political groups. "People will be less likely to exercise their protected right to lawful protest if they have to worry about 'big brother' spying on them," says Donna Lieberman of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU).

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Where it stands: The wrongful arrest suit brought by the NYCLU is being litigated. The court is weighing whether to force the NYPD to release its RNC files.

At the US Justice Department, an internal investigation of the FBI's preconvention surveillance found, in April 2006, that the probe "did not substantiate the allegations that the FBI improperly targeted protesters ... in an effort to chill the exercise of their First Amendment rights...."

Other controversial security initiatives:

Pentagon Domestic Intelligence Units

In 2002, the Pentagon established the Counterintelligence Field Activity office which is charged with protecting military installations within the US. It keeps an extensive database on potential terrorist threats and criminal activity that could affect local military bases. But it has also collected data on domestic political groups engaged in lawful protests. After that was made public two years ago, the Pentagon says it purged its files of inappropriate data. The Pentagon has also increased its use of National Security Letters, which ask private institutions for an individual's personal data, such as bank records. Unlike the FBI, it does not have the authority to compel such information to be turned over. Still, critics say this expansion of military intelligence may create a dangerous intrusion into Americans rights because the Pentagon does not have to operate with the same statutory checks and balances as the FBI and local law enforcement.


In 2003, Congress passed a law that requires all states to issue what are essentially national identify cards that would be used as driver's licenses and for other activities that require identification. To get the card, the government may collect information such as home address, social security number, immigration status, tax records, and banking records. It would be held in a state-maintained database which would be shared with other states and the federal government.

Advocates contend that establishing a secure identity card is essential to fighting terrorism. Opponents claim it would create a huge national database that included constitutionally protected information that could be easily accessed by local, state, and federal authorities without a proper warrant. They also say it would make identity theft much easier since the database could be compromised by hackers or unethical government employees.

Three states, Maine, Arkansas, and Idaho have already passed legislation calling for the repeal of the REAL ID act.

Department of Homeland Security's Automated Targeting System

Since the mid-1990s, the federal government has collected data on individuals who fly internationally. It includes the person's destination, how they paid for the ticket, and whether it was a one-way or roundtrip flight. Originally, the program was designed to ferret out drug traffickers, who often paid in cash and bought one-way tickets. After 9/11, the system was expanded to include searches for possible terrorists.

Advocates claim that data collection comes from a publicly available source – the airlines and travel agencies – and is not intrusive in any way. They also contend that it's vital not only to track potential criminals, but also as a way to determine behavior patterns that could in the future be used to identify potential terrorists.

Opponents claim the program is an unconstitutional invasion of a traveler's personal information that was implemented without congressional approval.

Senator Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont has said he plans to hold hearings on the system.

Bush mail-opening signing statement

In December, President Bush added a "signing statement" to the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act. It asserts that the executive branch has the authority to open sealed mail without a warrant for "foreign intelligence collection."

Proponents contend that the president was simply reasserting authority he already had. Critics, including Sen. Susan Collins, (R) of Maine, contend the signing statement "does absolutely nothing to alter the protections of privacy and civil liberties provided by the Constitution and other federal laws." She's introduced a bill that would reinforce that.