Government's interest in data -- in information of all kinds -- is well known. Most of the information we provide to get government services or comply with various laws such as the federal income tax law is filed under duress. Now, according to a story in the San Francisco Chronicle last month, "The Internal Revenue Service has proposed a new rule that would let tax preparers sell or share a client's tax-return information with third parties, as long as they got the client's consent." This interest by the IRS does not bode well for our right to keep such data private.
Several years ago, during Senate hearings on the nomination of Robert Bork to be a member of the Supreme Court, an investigator opposing the Bork nomination managed to secure Blockbuster's records of the movies Judge Bork watched. Opponents also got access to his reading habits and began to draw certain conclusions about Judge Bork's mental processes.
A number of concerned citizens, worried about Americans right to privacy, expressed alarm. The opponents of Judge Bork were sanguine. Privacy, they argued, is dead. Too many Americans, they said, already have compromised their personal rights for a free six-pack of Coke or a membership in a frequent-buyer program. Most are not even aware they are so vulnerable. Thus it is very unclear what support there is for new privacy protection to prevent similar occurrences, let alone more comprehensive national privacy legislation.
Just a few years ago, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy conceded that it may have violated federal privacy guidelines by using devices used by a data collection firm called DoubleClick to monitor traffic on its Internet sites for children and parents. The White House office which operates two anti-drug Web sites, one for children and another for parents, was spending over $130 million to advertise anti-drug use, with $12 million designated to direct users to Internet sites. But when users click to reach the Drug Control office, cookies are installed. The office also made deals with search engines so that computer users who searched the Internet using key words and phrases like "pot" or "weed," would automatically receive anti-drug advertisements on their computer screens and be invited to the Drug Control Web sites.
However well intentioned, this example is but one in a long history of abuses by government to track citizens' behaviors. In a thoughtful 1970s book called The Rise of the Computer State, author David Burnham, former Washington bureau chief for The New York Times, observed that "the computer files of the IRS, the Census Bureau, the Social Security Administration, the various security agencies such as the FBI, and our own insurance companies, know everything there is to know about our economic, social and marital status, even down to our past illnesses and the state of our health. If, or is it when," he asks, "these computers are permitted to talk to one another, when they are interlinked they can spew out a roomful of data on each of us that will leave us naked before whoever gains access to the information."
By a vote of 280-138, the controversial Patriot Act was reauthorized by the House of Representatives last month; the Senate voted 89-10 to approve the compromise package; and the bill, good for at least four more years, was sent to President Bush for his signature.
According to the ACLU and other libertarian groups, there are significant flaws in the Patriot Act, that threaten fundamental freedoms by giving the government the power -- without probable cause -- to access medical records, tax records, information about the books you buy or borrow and the power to break into your home and conduct secret searches without telling you for weeks, months or indefinitely. The fight against terror justifies such powers,