Congress was right to shut down TIA. And it would be right for the Department of Homeland Security to come clean about information collected in the Automated Targeting System.

In the year prior to the passage of the Privacy Act of 1974, a U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare report predicted a new era of computer databases housing personal information. It warned that, in the name of civil liberty, computerized snoops must be restrained.

The report eerily presaged the current zero-privacy era when — to name one recent advance — Apple reports that it can track iPhone locations in real time, and that it shares such information with other companies. And the 1973 report was actually meant to encompass government programs such as Homeland Security's Automated Targeting System.

The report advised there should be no personal data record-keeping system whose very existence is secret. There must be a way for people to find out what information is being kept on them and how it is being used. Individuals should be able to prevent information from being collected for one purpose, and then used for another without their consent. And they should be able to correct information that's being compiled about them.

In the Internet era, these ideas may seem quaint. But when it comes to data collected by government programs, they happen to be incorporated into law.

When the Automated Targeting System was announced in 2006, Hasbrouck, along with privacy activists such as Electronic Frontier Foundation cofounder John Gilmore, expressed alarm about its scope, saying it violated the Privacy Act by collecting information secretly and for uses that were unclear. Subsequent news coverage inspired some people to request their own profiles, which they shared with Hasbrouck. The level of detail was discomfiting, he says.

"I've seen in one person's file that showed not merely who they were traveling with, but ... whether they asked for one bed or two in a hotel room, because their hotel was booked through the same reservation as their flight," Hasbrouck says. "I don't think it's appropriate for anyone to be looking behind your hotel room and seeing who's sleeping with whom."

Hasbrouck asked for his own data profile in 2007. The response given by Customs and Border Enforcement was "manifestly incomplete," according to his federal lawsuit. He tried again in Oct. 2009, filing a new request for his own travel-related records, a list of when and to whom they had been disclosed, and an accounting of how that information was indexed, searched, and retrieved.

"They didn't want people to know they had this information, and they didn't want to give it out, because people might be alarmed at how extensive it is," says David Greene, executive director of the First Amendment Project, an Oakland legal aid nonprofit whose attorneys are representing Hasbrouck in his federal lawsuit. "Any time the government has that kind of detailed information, it has the potential to misuse it. That's the reason we have a Privacy Act, in recognition of the fact we have a right to know what information the government has about us."

I hope Hasbrouck and Greene prevail. For those of us frequently irked by private encroachments of the "privacy's dead: get over it," ethos, I'm less optimistic.

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