it has been argued, although the executive duty to seek court approval -- before or within 72 hours after wiretaps for example -- is still not resolved.

There is no doubt that the privacy rights of our citizens have taken a back seat to the fight against terror. The House and Senate were no doubt right to extend the act. But must we wait four more years to determine the effectiveness of the acts various provisions? The threat of terrorism notwithstanding, the threat of government abuse is very real and growing.

Most of the developed countries in the world -- after having experienced public controversy over the treatment of personal information and personal information systems -- have now developed legislation and policy and a response mechanism. So-called Data Protection Boards or Privacy Protection Commissions have been established to act as independent privacy ombudsmen defending individuals and investigating the workings of personal data systems maintained by government agencies or commercial firms.

"It seems strange," David Flaherty, author of Protecting Privacy in Surveillance Societies put it, "that some countries have independent agencies to protect privacy. In America you have to protect your own."

America need not rush out to create a new bureaucracy to mimic Europe's approach to solving the privacy dilemma, but Americans deserve much more respect from the institutions, both public and private, that serve them. At the least, the president -- this one or the next -- must create A National Privacy Protection Study Commission as both Nixon and Ford did to get to the heart of the commercially driven privacy issues and make their recommendations to the president and the Congress. Only at the national level in a publicly appointed body will we get at the truth of our concerns and forge solutions under the watchful eye of the body politic and the press.

Today, given the pervasive influence of the Internet, unscrupulous agents either of government or commerce, can tell where your mouse sits on your desktop, what sites you visit and for how long, and can track your movement from one Web site to another. As more and more of our daily activities for work, for play, and everyday living involve the use of this new network of networks, every aspect of our lives is suddenly open to surveillance and the misappropriation and misuse of personal information, including our habits and by extension our innermost thoughts.

As we rush headlong into a new but uncertain age, it is becoming increasingly clear that in our zeal to promote the marvels of the Internet, we may be seriously eroding the fundamental rights of the average citizen and consumer. Freedoms that Americans have so long cherished and expected are being undermined everyday not only by both Internet entrepreneurs and global corporations, but also sadly by our own government.

At stake are much more than merely occasional abuses of our more traditional concept of privacy, i.e. the right to protect confidential personal information from disclosure. Rather our more fundamental, constitutional right to be left alone -- the right to pursue life, liberty and happiness without unwarranted scrutiny, physical or electronic invasion, is being assaulted by the proliferation of surreptitious data gathering on the Internet.

It would be ironic and sad if the same Constitution which created a free press and a free enterprise system enabling the robust knowledge economy we now admire, was somehow responsible for the massive loss of personal privacy we are witnessing and with it a demise of more fundamental freedoms of our democratic society.

John Eger, a telecommunications lawyer and Lionel Van Deerlin Professor of Communications and Public Policy at San Diego State University, was telecommunications adviser to Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.