In May, while President Clinton was at the G-8 meeting in England, the administration suddenly launched a double-barreled, high-level blitzkrieg on privacy. Speaking at the New York University commencement in Washington Square, Vice President Al Gore, whose reputation as a technologist has always made him a good candidate to embrace the concept of privacy in an electronic world, announced a new privacy initiative. Speaking to 8,000 students and their families, Gore said, "You should have the right to choose whether your personal information is disclosed. You should have the right to know how, when and how much of that information is being used, and you should have the right to see it yourself to know if it's accurate."

Gore said Clinton signed a presidential memorandum to agency heads calling for a review of privacy practices, and they called upon Congress to pass medical privacy legislation. He also announced that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) would establish an "opt-out" site on the agency's Web site, which would include instructions on how people can prevent companies from reviewing their credit reports, prevent their driver's license information from being sold, and remove their names from marketing lists.

Democratic Interests

The Clinton memo reads as an affirmation of the importance of existing privacy protections, particularly the Privacy Act of 1974, and notes that, "as development and implementation of new information technologies create new possibilities for the management of personal information, it is appropriate to re-examine the federal government's role in promoting the interests of a democratic society in personal privacy and the free flow of information." The memo essentially instructs agencies to review their dissemination practices to ensure that they comply with the Privacy Act and other privacy-protection statutes. It particularly stresses the importance of assessing the kinds of personal information agencies may be making available on the Internet.

While the Clinton administration has been marginally more concerned about privacy issues than the previous Republican administrations, its track record both on important issues and in actual actions taken is not particularly good. The administration has allowed law-enforcement and intelligence agencies to lead the debate on encryption policy -- which most privacy advocates believe is the commonsensical answer to many electronic privacy communication issues. The intransigent position taken by those agencies that encryption software must include the capability for legitimate government surveillance has placed the administration in a position where it is diametrically opposed by the software industry and many businesses contending that encryption is a key component to protecting their confidential communications. The impasse has led Commerce Secretary William Daley, whose agency is responsible for controlling the export of encryption software, to indicate his disagreement with the current administration position. While there are several versions of medical privacy legislation ranging across the spectrum, the administration has not backed a particular piece of legislation. However, its congressionally mandated report recommending the general tenor of any medical privacy legislation Congress should pass includes law-enforcement accessibility beyond that advocated by anyone on the privacy side of the debate.

Finally, Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr is still investigating the hundreds of FBI files that turned up in the White House security office, and a class-action suit is proceeding in district court on the same issue. At least one federal statute that seems to have been clearly violated is the Privacy Act, although the FBI appears to be the only agency on the hook for such violations, since almost everyone familiar with the Privacy Act does not believe it applies to the White House itself. However, U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth is not currently counted among that number; he ruled last year that the White House was covered by the Privacy Act. Further, in a column in the New York Post, former Clinton political advisor Dick Morris alleged that the Pentagon intentionally disclosed Linda Tripp's security clearance application to a

Harry Hammitt  |  Contributing Writer