July 17, 2002 2:25 PM PDT

Is your cable guy a spy?

On the heels of plans for new powers to patrol people's Web use, the U.S. government is again turning to technology to monitor suspicious activity in the name of fighting terrorism.

The government has unveiled more details of its Terrorist Information and Prevention System (TIPS), a plan to recruit volunteers across the country who will keep tabs on dubious or suspicious behavior.

"The program will involve the millions of American workers who, in the daily course of their work, are in a unique position to see potentially unusual or suspicious activity in public places," according to the TIPS Web site.

Such workers also could include letter carriers, meter readers and others who would have access to private homes.

Volunteers would report the activity to law enforcement via the Internet or by telephone. The government also has set up a site where people can offer their services to Citizen Corps, a White House-backed community-based volunteer network that includes the TIPS program.

The American Civil Liberties Union, one of several critics of the plan, fears the proposal will encourage racial profiling and vigilantism, possibly leading to searches of private homes without a warrant.

"The administration apparently wants to implement a program that will turn local cable or gas or electrical technicians into government-sanctioned Peeping Toms," Rachel King, an ACLU legislative counsel, said in a statement.

In addition, the database aspect of the plan has raised concerns among security experts who worry people could break in and learn the identities of informants.

The TIPS Web site says "information received will be entered into the national database and referred electronically to a point of contact in each state as appropriate."

On Tuesday, the Department of Justice issued a statement responding to the barrage of criticism about the plan, saying it has been mischaracterized as an army of citizen spies.

Barbara Comstock, director of public affairs for the department, said TIPS "is simply a reporting system" based on other programs in which people are encouraged to give details of suspicious activity in the course of doing their jobs.

"None of the Operation TIPS materials published on the Web or elsewhere have made reference to entry or access to the homes of individuals; nor has it ever been the intention of the Department of Justice, or any other agency, to set up such a program," Comstock said in the statement.

The announcement of TIPS' details comes on top of several other government initiatives that have alarmed some members of the Web community. Six weeks after Sept. 11, Congress passed the U.S. Patriot Act, portions of which gave law enforcement greatly expanded powers to snoop on Internet communications.

In May, Justice Department and FBI officials announced new guidelines that would allow agents to dig for information on Web sites and publicly available databases, even if they're not conducting a specific investigation. The move raised concerns that the government would spy on specific ethnic and activist groups without reason because it would relax guidelines set in the 1970s that discouraged compiling dossiers on people based on their religious or political activities.

This week, Congress passed a bill that would carry a life sentence for some computer break-ins, a plan some have painted as an overzealous attempt to rein in hackers.

 

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