To better secure our country from terrorism, various law-enforcement and homeland defense agencies must act quickly and cohesively to thwart active attacks and respond to potential or planned attacks. One of the many ideas that have been widely discussed recently is the creation of a central repository or database that stores all the information that the government collects on citizens, residents, visitors, and others (those on one of the numerous "watch lists"). This database would store information in a manner that allowed security-related agencieslikely including the FBI, CIA, local and state agencies, and perhaps othersto correlate and analyze that information in order to identify and prevent threats to the nation. Such a database might allow for the following scenarios:
Tracking suspicious activities of an individual or a group whose actions are similar to those of parties known to be plotting against us
Tracking down money-laundering schemes and tracing money sent across the globe to support and fund terrorist activities
Integrating public and government (military, veteran) health records with other related sources of information, such as school absenteeism patterns, to identify outbreaks of a biological or chemical attack, or simply the rise and spread of an infectious disease
Tracking the purchases of potentially dangerous items (such as fertilizer that can be used for explosives) by immigrants or visitors from nations included on the State Department's list of terrorist-sponsoring nations.
But an increased ability to identify threats would only be half the story. Simply knowing that a group plans to attack, tracking the flow of money that funds such attacks, realizing that there is an outbreak of a medical crisis, or discovering that potentially harmful products have been purchased doesn't actually protect the country. The country is protected when this analysis is passed to law enforcement officials or first responders who then take action, such as arresting those conducting planning activities, intercepting money transfers, or administering the correct medical treatment and perhaps instituting a quarantine.
While these results are unarguably desirable, a closer examination of the proposed process to achieve these goals identifies an impressive collection of obstacles that must be overcome to realize those results.
These issues are both technical (handling, communicating, and securing large amounts of data) and social (turf battles over the ownership of data, privacy, and civil liberties). Rather than being ignored, these issues must be discussed and debated in a public forum, especially since the consequences of these actions, as well as the consequences of inaction against the threat of terrorism, affect our very way of life.