ALBANY, N.Y. -- Civil-liberties groups are voicing concerns over a first-in-the-nation system giving local police in New York and Vermont instant access to federal files on terrorism.
Critics of the pilot program caution that it poses an "enormous risk" of arrest and detention of people without cause. However, officials announcing the new information-sharing system last week emphasized that civil liberties will be protected.
"It's a very dangerous assumption that just because the information is in the system, it's right," said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. "In the drive to collect data and share it, there has been a neglect of the safeguards that are absolutely essential to protect us from the misuse of information."
The system will allow state and local police to check 12 databases maintained by federal agencies, and provide officers with a direct line to federal agents to report suspicious activities.
If a police officer has reason to believe a person might be involved in terror-related activities, state officials with security clearance will share data with their counterparts at federal agencies in Washington. The procedure is designed to keep sensitive information from becoming public.
In announcing the system last week, FBI and state officials said they would like to see the program expanded nationally if it succeeds in New York and Vermont.
"After all, that's what the war on terror is all about - to preserve the freedom and liberty that is so important to the American people," Vermont Gov. James Douglas said. "We're going to be sure as this pilot project unfolds it will be sure to protect the civil liberties that we all cherish."
Jonathan Gradess, executive director of the New York State Defenders Association, said he is worried the flow of information will add unsubstantiated reports to federal databases.
"The major flaw in the program rests on its major purpose," Gradess said. "Its major purpose is to put every scrap of information into the system on the assumption that it may somehow be relevant."
James McMahon, head of New York's homeland security office, said baseless inquiries made into the databases would "disappear" without record.
For example, McMahon said, it would be impossible to enter the names of everyone pulled over for speeding in New York.
"You're talking about 3.5 million people," said McMahon, former New York state police superintendent. "Most of those people are just honest people who can't drive the speed limit."
Officers' decisions to report information or inquire about a check to the data-sharing center will be judged on an "investigative" basis, McMahon said.
Gradess questioned whether a police officer stopping a person with an Arab-sounding name for a traffic violation would not automatically try to run the name through the federal databases.
"Nobody wants to make a mistake, so there is sort of permission to err on the side of overkill," he said.