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Few Americans likely know much about the Total Information Awareness System, but if the Pentagon actually builds this thing, it will soon know a great deal about all Americans.

TIA is an electronic street sweeper designed to short-circuit terrorist plans before they can be put into action. But TIA also holds potential for enormous abuse of individual privacy.

That's because TIA can sift through mountains of government and commercial data, searching for patterns of suspicious activity. . . .

TIA can track an individual's electronic trail, using his credit card records, e-mails, government documents that contain his name, even the books he checks out of his local library, all in the name of homeland security.

Where is the Fourth Amendment in all this? If the Pentagon gets its way, Americans' guarantee of freedom from electronic search and seizure could evaporate.

That's why Congress must insert strict accountability, with severe penalties for misusing TIA, into any enabling legislation. The federal government needs some expanded surveillance authority in the war against terror, but not so expanded that Americans' constitutional rights are shredded.

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