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The tension between privacy advocates and ambitious technology programs has slowed progress in data tools, and some researchers believe that basic compromises between security and privacy have been ignored by both sides.
"People incorrectly believe that we must sacrifice one to get more of other," said Dennis McBride, president of the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, an independent think tank that focuses on technology policy. "In our overzealous knee-jerk protection of privacy, we have thrown out the baby with the bath water."
Indeed, many on both sides of the issue believe that a model for compromise may now be emerging in proposals for a new network linking federal homeland security and state law enforcement databases.
The need for this coordination--and the difficulty of achieving it--was underscored in a recent report by the Department of Homeland Security's own internal auditor, which said the government has failed to consolidate 12 terrorist "watch lists."
A broader national debate on data mining and data sharing may be inevitable, however. Each individual creates a staggering amount of data when going through daily life, and increasingly, these bits of information are stored in giant databases at research companies like LexisNexis or ChoicePoint. Privacy laws created as many as 30 years ago are ill-suited for these modern tools, whether they are being used by government agencies, corporations or private citizens.
"The ultimate threat to our privacy is that everything of any significance at all becomes available," said Barry Steinhardt, director of the ACLU's Technology and Liberty Program. "It can be searched, mined, and predictions are going to be made about us on the basis of spare bits of data. That's what bears watching."
In the near term, the balance between privacy and safety will likely remain weighted on the side of security, especially in the first presidential election year since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"If you're applying to drive a tanker truck through a tunnel in New York City, the city has a right to know who you are," said ChoicePoint Chief Marketing Officer James Lee. "We would say there is no universal right to anonymity. There is only a right to privacy."
CNET News.com's Robert Lemos contributed to this report.