Monday July 24, 2000
The e-privacy boondongle
By Charles Cooper, ZDNet News

Why Carnivore and other privacy killers will be the death of the [First Generation] 'Net.

J. Edgar Hoover would have been darned proud of Carnivore, the secret cyber-snooping technology that the FBI seemingly lifted straight from the pages of George Orwell's "1984."

That's enough to give me a case of the heebie-jeebies. The existence of this ill-conceived spy system came to light earlier this month. So far, the politicos aren't exactly rushing to express their opposition. That could change if Monday's House Judiciary Committee on Carnivore feeds into a wider public unease about the way heretofore private communications are in danger of getting compromised.

In the meantime, EarthLink has provided the media with the biggest demonstration of intestinal fortitude by refusing the FBI's request to rig its network with the necessary equipment that would let the government monitor e-mail and other private online transmissions.

Go figure. You sign up with an Internet service provider, assuming that all of your electronic communications will remain private, when, lo and behold, Big Brother is watching your every move. I know, the powers-that-be are just on the prowl for the bad guys -- an argument that we've heard once or twice before. To be sure, there's a role for legitimate law enforcement, but the way the FBI tried to sneak Carnivore by us doesn't give me a lot of confidence that all will be hunky-dory.

And for the record, I don't see anything that prevents the snoops from also compiling private dossiers on your personal surfing or purchasing tastes.

It was only about five years ago that the term "Internet" first made it into a cartoon carried by the Internet. And look how far things have come in that short span. But if anything could trip us all up on that waltz to the great cyber beyond, this is the issue: Screw around with privacy, and it can all go kaput.

Another bad idea

And judging by the track record -- COPPA and the Computer Decency Act heading the list -- I don't have a lot of confidence in the knuckleheads who inhabit Official Washington to do the right thing. More recently, Congress whipped up a half-measure to "protect" employees from cyber-snooping by their employers.

A bipartisan group of congressmen came up with this proposal to curtail cyber-snooping by employers. Mind you, the courts have already upheld the legality of employers spying on their workers' e-mail communications, the logic being that the employees are using company equipment on company premises while on company time.

My hat is off to the hired help for moving in the right direction, but this is still far too modest a proposal.

Consider this: A survey by the American Management Association reports that some 45 percent of companies with more than 1,000 employees already secretly monitor their workers -- including their e-mail communications. Some put the number even higher.

Too much is at stake to remain content with half-measures and mumbling compromises. But who is going to take up the gauntlet and lead the charge? I'm still waiting for the right man (or woman) on the white horse to ride into the picture.

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