List shouldn't be kept secret

Letter to the editor

Posted: Monday, May 30, 2005

Last week, I was dismayed to hear on NPR that the Department of Homeland Security was planning to exempt its "mega-database" from Privacy Act and FOIA requirements. This means that there will be no external controls and no review available to the public, about whose names or what personal data is included in this database.

I have been working professionally with government databases for over 25 years, and I am here to tell you that even in databases belonging to highly competent and long-established agencies, errors can creep in. In this case, with a database that is supposed to help detect terrorist activity (though there are currently no restrictions on its secret government use), tremendous damage could be imposed on the life and liberty of any innocent Americans mistakenly included.

The public comment period was about to close, so I went to which is an official Web site for submitting comments on proposed federal regulations. There was a message that "this agency does not accept electronic comments," so I printed out my comment to fax it to the (non-toll-free) number listed. That number either rang busy or gave a message that it was invalid. I called the Juneau office of our congressional delegation, where the manager confirmed that the number didn't work for her either, and she helpfully provided a contact number for Homeland Security. I asked the Homeland Security staffer (who gave me a fax number that worked) if he would confirm that my comment had been received and accepted. I was told he would call me back; he never did. I asked if they would correct the fax number info and was assured he would get right on it; it was still on the Web site at closing time. It was still not working.

This agency is apparently incapable of using modern technology to transact business. This shouldn't give us a lot of confidence in their ability to develop or manage a secret database of such size and import. Please join me in communicating with our congressional delegation about these concerns.

Janet Smoker


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