A government proposal to save money by using a computer to monitor federal employees' telephone calls has outraged civil libertarians and is putting the Office of Management and Budget on the defensive.
"There are a lot of other ways to cut the budget other than to impinge on people's rights," Rep. Don Edwards (D-San Jose), chairman of the House subcommittee on civil and constitutional rights, said Saturday. "If it's surveillance, they ought to have to prove to the public that it's necessary. I'm going to ask for a public hearing."
Prompted by a General Services Administration review, the federal government plans to start the computer surveillance this spring in an effort to reduce personal phone calls made by employees.
The dates of the monitoring are scheduled to vary from agency to agency and will not be announced in advance.
The proposal, disclosed Friday in a column in the New York Times, has drawn criticism also from the American Civil Liberties Union and the nation's largest federal employees' union.
Loretta Ucelli, spokeswoman for the 700,000-member American Federation of Government Employees, said the surveillance would demoralize workers.
"I wouldn't want any employee of the government to suddenly wake up and find out that he or she has been tagged with 20 'Dial-A-Porn' calls when the computer made a mistake," Edwards said. "Just a few weeks ago, the (FBI) computer made a mistake and an innocent person was arrested five times because a thief had stolen his identification."
Edwards, whose subcommittee oversees the FBI, also said the surveillance system would discourage whistle-blowing "because anybody who picked up the phone to tell higher authorities about misbehavior or illegal acts . . . would be loath to do it if he or she knew the computer was making a record of the call and the name."
OMB spokesman Steve Tupper said his agency has been billing employees for non-business calls for years. "The technology now available just makes it a lot easier to track them down," he said.
"We are well aware of the potential for abusing employees' privacy," Tupper added. "This system will track down patterns to certain numbers like Dial-A-Porn, but we won't be trying to catch whistle-blowers (to) see who's been calling the Washington Post to leak stories."