The battle over the FBI's "Carnivore" system for wiretapping email brings some needed perspective to the privacy debate. These days it's hard to find a politician without some plan to impose new privacy regulations on business. The physicians should first try to heal themselves. Our various levels of government have a long and undistinguished record of disrespecting our personal privacy.
You can start with the IRS. The former official historian of the IRS, Shelley Davis, reports that the agency once compiled its own "enemies list" of 11,000 Americans. These were not terrorists or convicts, just average citizens who criticized government policies.
In early 1999, the state of Florida had to abandon its plan to sell access to its motor vehicle database after a public outcry. Florida wanted to sell driver photos along with names, addresses and vital statistics -- a stalker's dream. South Carolina had a similar program. Anyway, after abandoning the driver database sale, Florida's legislature voted last summer to sell the state Labor Department's records to consumer-reporting companies. These records include salary information on 6.5 million workers in the state. Similar programs exist in Texas, North Carolina, Iowa, Minnesota and elsewhere, according to Karla Schuster of the Orlando Sun-Sentinel.
In an excellent report in November of last year for Scripps Howard News Service, Richard Powelson reported: "At least 20 states' prisons have contracted with local, state or federal governments to handle records that in some or many cases reveal citizens' names, addresses, telephone numbers, birth dates, Social Security numbers and sometimes even a credit-card number." Amazing as it may seem, many states contracted with inmates to manage records on average citizens. The results were frightening and predictable, with credit card fraud, theft of official birth certificates, and harassing phone calls among them.
Moving beyond the more bone-headed of government privacy intrusions, think about the last time you bought a house. Your new address, the price you paid and the size of your mortgage all became public information. Often you'll see such information printed in the newspaper.
In fact, we live in a fairly open society, and I wouldn't necessarily favor broad new privacy laws, but if you're concerned about threats to your privacy, there's no question that government is the largest. While numerous pols are urging new restrictions on companies, which must treat consumers well or lose them in a free market, few are urging new restrictions on government agencies, which face no similar penalty for bad behavior.
We shouldn't prevent the FBI from investigating crimes online. There are evil people in the world and the Feds need high-tech tools to catch them. Furthermore, total anonymity for Internet users is overrated -- it allows people to do things with no accountability, and that's dangerous.
We should, however, be careful not to give law enforcement too much power. And the lesson of Carnivore should be clear. Privacy advocates should stop wasting their time beating up Doubleclick and focus on the real privacy debate -- a debate about the power of government in the digital age.