PALO ALTO, Calif.-- For the first time in more that a decade, civil libertarians and compu

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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 passangers list. "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 information. 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 computer organization. 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 base. "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 case. "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 perfect. "With up to 900,000 queries a day, lots of things can happen there." Copyright: Knight/Ridder

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