Friday, May 12, 2006

Ignoring Real Privacy Problems

With all the hullabaloo over the NSA's wire-tapping and now phone record pattern analysis programs, here's some excerpts from an article I ran across that I find fairly interesting. It discusses some issues that many self-proclaimed privacy advocates seem to dismiss:

Federal Web sites. The hypocrisy is perhaps most clearly evident in the privacy practices of government agencies. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is pressuring private e-commerce companies to follow stringent rules regarding the collection and use of consumer information. The FTC is seeking to codify their "rules" regarding whom businesses can sell or give the information to, and whether consumers can opt in or out of the information-gathering.

It turns out that only 3 percent of government agency Web sites audited by the General Accounting Office follow those FTC recommendations?and even the FTC was among the 97 percent of violators. Government Web sites apparently swap sensitive information on citizens like last month?s Pokémon cards. As [the] House Majority Leader asked, "Which worries you more: the IRS disclosing your personal financial information, or knowing how many pairs of jeans you've bought this year?"

Mailboxes. Individuals who don't have too-permanent addresses find post office boxes a convenient way to receive mail. Those seeking a bit more privacy have found that private mailboxes, such as the ones available at Mail Boxes Etc., afford even more protection... [T]he U.S. Postal Service [requires] that anyone wishing to open a new private mailbox supply his home address and two forms of identification. Groups including the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence have decried the new requirements, since it makes it that much harder for people to keep their whereabouts unknown from potential stalkers; not to mention government snoops...

Brady Law databases. When the Brady Act was passed, one of its key provisions was that background checks on gun buyers would eventually be instant and that federal authorities must immediately "destroy all records" created by the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). This was to assure that the federal government would not create a national database of firearms owners. But the FBI decided once again that the letter of the law was but mere suggestion. The bureau announced it would be saving records of gun sales for at least six months, ostensibly as an "audit record" to keep track of how well the background check system is working...

In a related matter, the Veterans Benefits Administration has turned over 90,000 names to the FBI for inclusion in the NICS "no sale" list. The names are those of veterans, not convicted felons, whose supposedly private medical records included an administrative finding that they were "mentally incompetent." Besides veterans afflicted with post-traumatic stress (a diagnosis on a written questionnaire), the list also includes "incompetent surviving spouses, adult helpless children and dependent parents" of vets.

Know Your Customer. If at first you don't succeed, snoop, snoop again. That seems to be the government's motto as Treasury et al. have tried to sneak through the backdoor of Congress bank-snooping rules that were defeated by a torrent of unfavorable citizen reaction. "Know Your Customer" rules would in fact require banks to spy on their customers and report anything "abnormal" about an individual's pattern of withdrawals and deposits to the government.
Not to be deterred, anti-privacy forces tried to impose similar requirements on "inter-national" transactions, and the consumers who make them, in a supposed anti-money-laundering bill...

National ID. Although the Social Security number is still too widely used as a de facto ID number, the federal government has been quite busy trying to saddle us with a de jure one... The bar-code crowd tried... with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act..., which directed the Department of Health and Human Services to tag every patient with a unique health identifier. Thankfully, amendments by Representative Ron Paul defunding the identifier have passed the... appropriations processes. But, cash-poor as it may be, the provision remains on the books.

Wiretaps. The ACLU and others who monitor civil liberties have noted that the President's regime has been the wiretap-happiest administration to date. Congress helped the administration earn this dubious honor by passing the Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act (CALEA)... CALEA forced phone companies to install wiretap devices directly into their systems to provide federal law enforcement with easier access to their customers' communications. At the time, [the] FBI Director testified that the FBI would not use CALEA authority to trace the location of cell-phone users. But last year, in a familiar pattern, the FBI convinced the FCC that under CALEA, cell-phone companies must give the government the beginning and ending location of a cell-phone user's call.

The FBI has also argued that it has the right to collect digital content after a call has gone through "keyed-in numbers such as extensions and bank account numbers" with only a "pen register" warrant issued by a federal magistrate. In the analog age, pen-register warrants enabled investigators to find out what number a call was placed to, as opposed to a search warrant issued by a judge, which was needed to actually listen in on phone calls. A federal court overruled that position... And in its fight to make sure it hears everything, the FBI has also had mixed success in barring foreign companies not subject to the FBI?s whims from domestic telecommunications.

And a couple of oldies but goodies:

Echelon. First formed as part of the American-British alliance created after World War II, Echelon is an automated eavesdropping network that seemingly swaths the entire globe. Run by the intelligence agencies of five Anglophone countries (the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) and headed by our own National Security Agency, the system intercepts "billions of messages per hour" from phone, fax, and e-mail communications. Recent investigations by the European Union and others have revealed that Echelon computers search through those messages and flag for human analysis those with keywords such as "bomb," ... or "CIA."

And the keen part, from the spooks' perspective, is that by having their pals in MI6 spy on Americans while the NSA spies on British citizens, the two can swap information while claiming not to violate laws barring them from spying on their own citizens.

Carnivore. Carnivore is the FBI's answer to Echelon;a "black box" with secret software inside attached to an ISP's computer network. Carnivore monitors all traffic (e-mail, Web surfing, chats, and so on) on the ISP and, the FBI claims, only gives the authorities the information they have a court order for.

Of course, there's no way to keep an eye on the FBI. [The] Attorney General sought some of that elusive verification in the form of an "independent" review by a leading university. But when universities saw all the secrecy restrictions and limits on what they would even be allowed to review, most blanched. Fox News reported that scientists at MIT, University of California, San Diego, and Purdue all declined to submit proposals. The Department of Justice finally settled on a team "larded with government contractors, ex-presidential advisers, and security-clearance types" assembled by the IIT Research Institute in Illinois to conduct the review...

ISPs have understandably been rather silent on the issue ever since an unnamed ISP, presumed to be Earthlink, lost a court battle to keep FBI from installing Carnivore. They may get back some of their gumption now that Network Ice, a leader in the consumer firewall business, has released "Altivore," a free program ISPs can install and run themselves so as to extract for the FBI only relevant court-ordered data.

Of course, this is but a partial list, and a case could be made for any number of government actions to be included... If the debate in Washington... ignores much-needed reform of government abuses, it will be that much harder to even agree on a top 100.

OK, OK. I am guilty of some selected editing. The content is reflected accurately, I think, but I did remove some references. The article is from December 2000, before George W. Bush assumed office. The "President" is Bill Clinton, the "Attorney General" is Janet Reno, the "FBI Director" is Louis Freeh, the "House leader" is Dick Armey. The big deal in this pre-September 11 scene is the hand-wringing over the "'danger' posed by online booksellers" keeping a list of your favorite authors or your insurance company's knowing if you're sick" and such. The bottom line is that this new religion that many in the press and in Congress have found about the Fourth Amendment is about something that is a part of an ongoing active development running more than a decade (probably much longer). In the words of another pre-Bush era article, attributed to Sun Microsystems Chairman, Scott McNealy:

Privacy is dead, deal with it.

The real question for us is, given that from early Christian Tradition private property is prudentially derived, i.e., it is a qualified natural right, and not an absolute, or divine right, why would not the same be true then for "privacy?" And if so, then why get so torqued over this (the existence of such NSA programs)? Don't like them? Disagree that they are a good thing to do? Fine. Still, it's not like we are dealing with the authentically inalienable right to life that the currently unhinged blithely dismiss. (hard hat tips on the last two: Hugh Hewitt)

[posted by e-mail]

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