CHICAGO, Oct. 22 (UPI) -- A consumer uses his smart phone to make a wireless purchase of a curious product over the Internet on eBay.com. Just a few hours earlier, someone using that very same mobile phone number had called a shadowy figure in Khartoum. Should the data from the eBay transaction be integrated into a national database for national security purposes, allowing CIA or National Security Agency investigators potentially to connect the dots and unveil an emerging plot by a suspected terrorist?
Such questions are relevant to an emerging debate over civil liberties in today's post-Sept. 11, 2001, digital world.
"For national security in the Information Age, there is talk of a shared network so we can better connect the dots," said Rob Atkinson, director of the New Economy Project and vice president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a think tank of the Democratic Leadership Council in Washington, D.C.
"This is a very timely issue. It's all under debate," he told UPI's Wireless World.
This week on Capitol Hill, Congress and the Bush administration have been discussing these wireless technology security issues.
If the U.S. government creates such a national, shared-intelligence network, some policymakers say, then it also should create an independent board, charged with protecting civil liberties -- such as the right to due process under the law and the presumption of innocence.
Some experts "have warned that e-Bay records would be in the same pool of information as the database on Hamas leaders," Atkinson said during a recent panel discussion in Washington. "But the debate should be about how can we deploy these technologies to accomplish the mission of protecting national security -- without hurting privacy and civil liberties."
Atkinson said he thinks such an integrated network -- combining data and voice information, from a variety of sources -- could help capture terrorists before they strike.
"I'm not saying we could have stopped Sept. 11," Atkinson said, "but we could have gotten several of those terrorists before they attacked the United States."
He reckons that integrating the major terrorist lists into one network would be a "simple, computer-programming task. It will take six to nine weeks." Adding other, commercial elements to such a network database would be a longer-term project, however.
"If we do this, it will deter attacks," said Atkinson. "With the better use of IT, we can ID risks of individuals. We can put people in risk categories."
Other policy analysts do not feel so enthusiastic about this kind of information technology.
David Sobel, general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a digital civil liberties organization in Washington, said there were possible legal and ethical problems with a national security database.
"I still have theoretical problems with this," Sobel said. "It raises problems with the presumption of innocence. You're taking action before acts are committed. You're taking action based on information that says someone has a proclivity to do something -- based on a prior activity. We need to tread very carefully."
Sobel stressed, however, that he and his organization are not anti-technology.
Another expert said concerns about the implementation of these technologies are a de facto form of opposition to the technologies themselves.
"Often, the concerns about technology and its implementation in practice lead effectively to its opposition in practice," said Paul Rosenzweig, senior legal research fellow, the Heritage Foundation, and an adjunct law professor at George Mason University in Arlington, Va. "Fundamentally, the problem we face -- the risk of terrorism -- is different from a traditional law enforcement problem. We are trying to use technology as a predictive tool, rather than reacting. That is clear. Reaction is too late."
One area where new technologies can lead to predictive tactics is in shipping. RFID, Radio Frequency Identification tags similar to the anti-shoplifting devices affixed to clothes in department stores can be placed on shipping containers on large vessels coming into the United States.
"The technology has been there for a while, but people are now seeing the benefits of it," Muthukumar Natesan, practice leader in the Minneapolis office of Tata Consultancy Services, a firm headquartered in Mumbai, India, told UPI's Wireless World. "There is a critical mass now."
According to Rosenzweig, who previously worked at the U.S. Department of Justice, some 8 million containers arrive on ships in U.S. ports each day from overseas.
"We currently screen, in some way, only 2 percent of those containers," he said.
RFID tags could track all those containers, telling customs inspectors who shipped the boxes and from where. Heuristic or problem-solving computer models could help refine the searches.
"Whatever you call it, it is a predictive judgment about people," Rosenzweig said. "It is the judgment about knowing who packed it, where it came from, what the shippers have done in the past. If we don't try something like that, we are just hoping we will get lucky."
Technology can be used to make sure any information gleaned from searching containers, with RFID tags, is not used for other, non-national security purposes, Rosenzweig said.
He explained there are technologies to keep data anonymous and to create electronic audit trails to make sure those who learn secrets about those being searched do not leak the information.
"The methodologies presumably are going to be classified," he said. "If disclosed, that would allow the people at whom they are directed to figure out ways to avoid them. Some of the sources of information that go into creating a predictive judgment are going to have to be classified."
Atkinson acknowledged the new technologies would increase the government's power, which was risky.
"In the old days, civil libertarians could get by on the fact that the government was inept -- they couldn't find people anyway. But that's not the case anymore. It's clear the government can do it now," Atkinson said. "We need to have the right rules."
Wireless World is a weekly series by UPI examining social and economic and political changes wrought by emerging wireless telecommunications technologies. E-mail email@example.com