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Public privacy

Last month, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft acknowledged that privacy is a central concern for e-businesses and individuals alike and announced the appointment of a new Internet privacy aide within the office of the Deputy Attorney General, who will be charged with the protection of consumer rights on the Net. Other than customer service, no single issue has hampered the growth of online business more than public perception of Internet businesses compromising in the privacy of individuals. Although new privacy aide’s initial assignments will apparently be focused on the FBI’s controversial “Carnivore” e-mail surveillance system, Ashcroft’s decision apparently signals the government’s recognition of personal privacy online as an national priority.

Or does it?

On May 30 John Ashcroft also gave the FBI expanded authority for its agents to monitor Internet chat rooms, Web sites, and commercial databases in search of clues to suspected terrorist activities; and to initiate inquiries at libraries and other public places without a warrant or even the need to show that a crime was committed. The new guidelines allow the FBI to send undercover agents to any event “open to the public”—including political gatherings and places of worship—to look for signs of terrorist or criminal activity. The agency will also be able to collect information on consumers through magazine subscriptions, book purchases, charitable contributions, and travel itineraries.

The new powers clash dramatically with the obligation of public libraries to maintain the privacy of their records, an issue that caused consternation when the FBI confiscated library computer records following the terrorist attacks of September 11. And last month Mr Ashcroft said something to the effect that churches, libraries and the Internet are public places where law-abiding citizens should have no expectation of privacy.

I have voiced my objections to such powers wielded by a government agency in a previous posting. It was encouraging to see that P.J. Connolly of InfoWorld takes issue with Ashcroft’s position that people have little, if any, expectation of privacy in public places.

“I don’t know about you, but I insist on a certain amount of privacy in public places. I don’t let store clerks recite my credit card numbers over the phone if their swipe terminals malfunction. I certainly don’t let people get too close to me when I’m using an ATM. You can bet that I want to know why someone wants my Social Security number, driver’s license information, or anything that I consider my business and no one else’s. If I don’t insist on the same degree of privacy in my Internet transactions, I’m asking to get robbed.”

He also admits to being ‘a conflicted libertarian’ (small ‘l’) who doesn’t trust any governmental institution that he can’t walk to and challenges his audience:

“Spare me your e-mails claiming that the war on terrorism requires that we give up our freedoms and similar drivel…. I do want to know how many of you think what you ordered from the online grocery or pharmacy is the government’s business, absent any crime being committed. Depending on the response I get, I may need to redefine what it means to be an American.”

That’s the spirit. Together with yesterday’s postponement, and hopefully amendment, of the Regulation of Investigative Powers Act (RIPA), it is a positive blip in the battle against the steady erosion of personal freedoms by the state.

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