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PC World poll highlights privacy concerns

PC World

By Frank Thorsberg

(IDG) -- As Congress moves closer to equipping terrorist trackers with broader high-tech surveillance powers, a survey of readers revealed a willingness to give a little--but not a lot--on the volatile personal privacy issue.

The informal poll of 1301 visitors to the Web site showed a near 3-to-2 split on the question of giving law enforcement agencies stepped-up powers to look at e-mail messages. A total of 60 percent said they had serious concerns about giving the government more access to personal e-mail while 38 percent said they had little or no concern. Nearly 3 percent answered "don't know."

When it comes to closer government scrutiny of Web surfing habits, financial records, and medical information, a majority of respondents to this unscientific survey voiced even greater opposition. INFOCENTER
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A total of 63 percent were either very concerned or extremely concerned about having law enforcement scrutinize their Web habits. Another 35 percent had little or no concern about investigators tracking their clicking patterns.

Survey respondents clearly didn't like the idea of allowing the government greater access to their financial records. Seventy percent said money matters were off limits. And a total of 64 percent of the survey-takers were extremely or very concerned about government agents having access to their medical records.

The proposed PATRIOT (Provide Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) Act would provide investigators with more flexibility and greater access to high-tech tools to pursue wiretaps of mobile phones, interception of e-mail messages, and monitoring of Web surfing and other PC-based communications.

Reacting to Crisis

The government claims the new powers are required to counteract today's threats. A twenty-first century terrorist hunt requires high-tech firepower to be successful, says a Department of Justice attorney specializing in antiterrorism.

"The new law will bring us up to the 21st century in terms of our capability, but in no way does it infringe on constitutional values or rights," explains the prosecutor, who spoke with on the condition of anonymity. "I really think a computer user [who is] not a criminal, has nothing to fear by the proposed amendments."

Under terms of the PATRIOT Act, the Justice Department attorney says investigators would still need a good reason, and approval from a judge, to use any newly expanded authority in a terrorism probe. He characterized that usage as "more surgical, not a broad expansion."

"This is not a national dragnet. It's not a scare tactic," the prosecutor says. "Everyone on the Internet is not going to be monitored by the government. We are only going to be using these tools in investigations for criminal misconduct."

Yet, federal investigators have already stepped up their use of Carnivore and Echelon, clandestine programs used to monitor domestic and international e-mail traffic.

Moving Too Fast?

President George W. Bush initially sought approval of more potent surveillance laws by October 5 after the initial version of new antiterrorism legislation began moving through Congress just three days after the September 11 attacks.

The Feds are doing what they usually do in a crisis: asking for more money, more programs, and more technology. Congress may decide that some of that is necessary, but certain groups--even those without direct links to personal privacy--question the speed with which decisions are being made.

Grover Nordquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, testified before a Senate subcommittee on Wednesday that the proposed legislation was being hustled along too quickly.

"I wrote a letter to all members of the House and Senate urging them to promise not to vote for any legislation on civil liberties restrictions that they had not actually read," Nordquist says. "I did receive one fax from the Hill asking if I was kidding. I was not."

Nordquist and others have suggested limiting the proposed changes to terrorist cases alone and putting a time limit, perhaps for two years, on use of the new rules.

The PATRIOT Act has made whirlwind progress through the House and Senate, where bills are debated through subcommittees and committees for weeks and often months before a decision can be reached.

Data Analysis Key to Success

Moreover, it's not at all clear that these measures would do what they're supposed to do. When asked how to fix the terrorism problem, security experts can't point to any impenetrable shield, only to the hope of instant diagnosis and rapid treatment.

"You can't defend. You can't prevent. The only thing you can do is detect and respond," insists Bruce Schneier, founder of Counterpane Internet Security, a corporate computer security firm.

Schneier insists the biggest problem that federal investigators face is not data collection: It's data analysis and the human intelligence resources that will be required to sift through all that information, some of it contained in various foreign languages.

"The way to fix this is we need a better ability to know where to look," Schneier says. "It's the drinking out of the fire hose problem. Turning up the fire hose isn't going to help."

Personal Privacy Threatened

Privacy advocates, fearful of any trespass against personal liberty, predictably call for extreme caution.

David Henderson, an economist and research fellow at the Hoover Institution, worries about the PATRIOT Act's impact on personal privacy.

"They are going to reduce privacy if these various measures go through," says Henderson, an economic advisor to the Reagan administration and recent author of Joy of Freedom: An Economist's Odyssey.

In the government's fast-moving and expansive search for terrorists, Henderson says all kinds of data will be gathered about innocent and not-so-innocent people. One example might be an e-mail message between friends bragging about winning a sports bet. If uncovered during a terrorist search, he asks, would investigators turn that information over to the Internal Revenue Service?

"What they will do is capture all kinds of other people in their net and reduce our privacy in the process," Henderson says. "This is government we are talking about and government tends to use whatever it has."

Other Surveys

Other polls conducted this week show varying levels of public support for broadening the government's investigative powers.

The Harris Poll surveyed 1012 adults between September 19 and 24 and found that 86 percent support face-recognition technology to scan for suspected terrorists at various locations and events, 81 percent wanted closer monitoring of banking and credit card transactions, and 68 percent favored a national identification system.

The Harris Poll also showed that more than half of the respondents supported government monitoring of Internet discussions and chat rooms and increased monitoring of mobile communications and e-mail.

In a BusinessWeek poll this week, more than 60 percent of respondents said a national ID card system was acceptable and that they would submit to a facial scanning system in connection with transit or large public events.

The same poll showed only slightly more than 50 percent of the 1334 respondents expressed support for expanded scanning of e-mail messages and phone conversations by the government. There was also a nearly even split on the issue of additional wiretapping and e-mail surveillance.


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