Touching Data Bases


The Federal Trade Commission has gone to war to ensure Web site operators don't pass along consumer information to mass marketers. But when fellow feds start stockpiling citizen data, the FTC is MIA.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is trying to have as many data collection points in place as possible before the zero-oversight Reno years come to an end. First up is the bureau's brazen, bit-sniffing Carnivore system, which the FBI installs directly on Internet service providers' servers to trap "suspect" communications. The system then sifts through the data looking for hackers, drug dealers, and terrorists.

Such a system is quite different from old-style analog phone taps, which require investigators to identify their targets. You couldn't ask a judge for permission to wiretap a city block. Carnivore, by contrast, munches indiscriminately through gigabytes of data. This is more or less total government surveillance of electronic communication, and how it squares with constitutional protections against unreasonable searches and seizures is hard to see.

Then again, a federal court just handed the FBI the right to maintain a national registry of firearm owners, even though Congress specifically outlawed any such thing. A provision of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act mandates "instant background checks" of gun buyers. Gun dealers send personal data about prospective buyers to a Justice Department data bank. Supplying the data–the customer's name, sex, race, date of birth, and state of residence–is supposed to prevent guns from being sold to convicted felons and such. Since November 1998, about 280,000 purchases out of 14 million have been rejected.

Little known is the fact that the Justice Department has allowed the FBI to keep all gun purchase records for six months after the sale. The National Rifle Association filed suit over that practice, citing language in the Brady law requiring that all information on approved gun sales be destroyed. But the NRA lost that argument in U.S. district court last year and again in July, when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit also agreed with the Justice Department.

The department says it has to keep the records around to weed out corrupt gun dealers. Oh.

Perhaps we should turn Carnivore loose on those dealers' Internet accounts, and those of their possible straw-man buyers, and their friends and families too. Then we'll really find out what they're up to.