New York Times – free registration required Going Electronic, Denver Reveals Long-Term Surveillance.
The Denver police have gathered information on unsuspecting local activists since the 1950's, secretly storing what they learned on simple index cards in a huge cabinet at police headquarters.
When the cabinet filled up recently, the police thought they had an easy solution. For $45,000, they bought a powerful computer program from a company called Orion Scientific Systems. Information on 3,400 people and groups was transferred to software that stores, searches and categorizes the data.
Then the trouble began.
After the police decided to share the fruits of their surveillance with another local department, someone leaked a printout to an activist for social justice, who made the documents public. The mayor started an investigation. People lined up to obtain their files. Among those the police spied on were nuns, advocates for American Indians and church organizations.
To make matters worse, the software called many of the groups “criminal extremists.”
“I wasn't threatened in any way by them watching,” said Dr. Byron Plumley, who teaches religion and social values at Regis University in Denver, and discovered that the police had been keeping information about his activities against war. “But there's something different about having a file. If the police say, `Aha, he belongs to a criminal extremist organization,' who's going to know that it's the American Friends Service Committee, and we won the Nobel Peace Prize?”
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Orion got its start two decades ago developing an analysis tool for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, where a new office run by Adm. John Poindexter is developing controversial plans to gather vast amounts of personal information as a means to hunt terrorists.
With the Pentagon's approval, Orion says, it began selling a revamped version of its tool to law enforcement agencies in the early 1990's, with little success at first.
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In Denver, a panel appointed by the mayor concluded that the police had failed to understand both the power and the pitfalls of the software. “I don't think they had a clue what the capacity of this was and what they were doing with it, honestly,” said Jean Dubofsky, a former Colorado Supreme Court justice and member of the panel, which concluded that not one of the 3,400 police records could be legitimately retained.
Justice Dubofsky's panel recommended some strict guidelines for intelligence gathering, similar to those that the New York police have told a federal court they want removed. The guidelines have been adopted, but otherwise, the panel could find no real harm done, even in the misuse of the software program.
“This is the kind of program that could have been very helpful before Sept. 11,” said Justice Dubofsky. “It's also a very powerful tool that can cause problems for people. If you're going to use it, you use it very carefully.”