Touching Data Bases


Touching Data Bases

By Jeff A. Taylor

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.

More Bras, Less Crime

By Katherine Mangu-Ward

Kursty Groves, a 26-year-old graduate of London's Royal College of Art and Design, is developing the Techno Bra, sure to be hailed by anarcho-capitalists everywhere as a giant step toward privatizing the police force.

The brassiere contains a global positioning system, a heart rate monitor, and the components of a cell phone. If the wearer is attacked, the bra sends a signal to a GPS satellite, which determines the location of the assault and dispatches a text message to the number of the wearer's choosing–possibly a private security firm or a bodyguard. The wearer has 30 seconds to disarm the bra in case of a false alarm.

If this catches on, the potential attacker will soon be as wary of the well-endowed woman as he is of the musclebound man with a gun rack in his pickup.

Insuring Protection

By Sara Rimensnyder

Racial profiling by police has sparked protest and debate nationwide. It has also inspired a business plan: A legal insurance company has decided that profiling's likely victims are a market waiting to be tapped.

Based in Ada, Oklahoma, Pre-Paid Legal Services offers clients telephone access to an attorney 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Subscribers, who pay $10 to $26 per month, also get a membership card to flash at police officers. The card is supposed to jolt the cops into accountability by reminding them that they're dealing with a citizen who has rights–and an attorney.

Meanwhile, several states are responding to questions about racial profiling with legislation. In July, for instance, the Massachusetts Senate overwhelmingly approved a bill requiring officers searching a car to record the driver's race and gender so the data can be analyzed for patterns of bias. Cops would also have to take an anti-bias course and hand out complaint cards with a toll-free number to report discrimination.

Burn, Baby, Burn

By Katherine Mangu-Ward

As the May forest fire started by the U.S. Forest Service burned down more than 18,000 acres of forest and 400 homes in New Mexico, members of the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Conservation and Reinvestment Act. The bill, which President Clinton promises to sign if it passes the Senate, allows the government to spend up to $3 billion a year for the next 15 years to buy additional land for parks and conservation programs.

The bill not only assumes a level of competence that the New Mexico debacle undercuts, it ignores a $5 billion maintenance backlog on lands the federal government already owns. Apparently, owning more than 60 percent of Nevada is not enough to, in the words of Al Gore, "ensure that our children and grandchildren will be able to experience the majesty of the untouched forest."

Bureaucratic Slumlords

By Mariel Garza

The federal government, it seems, is not simply a questionable park owner. It's also a terrible landlord. More than half of its 1,682 buildings are in dire need of repairs, some requiring more than $20 million of work to comply with safety standards. What's more, the problem isn't new. According to a General Accounting Office report released in April, the federal government's property management agency has failed to repair many building problems that were identified almost a decade ago and have undoubtedly gotten worse–and more expensive to fix–over time.

Why? There are more repairs than the agency has money to fund, despite spending an average of $580 million on improvements each year. At the end of 1999, there was still about $4 billion of work left to be done. Plus, the property management agency's computer files on repair status are a mess.

The feds have a new strategy, though, borrowed from the private sector: They'll give repair priority to those buildings that would yield the highest rent, thus giving the fund more money to fix additional buildings.

Guns Down Under

By Jacob Sullum

Last spring, Australian officials complained that a TV spot produced by the National Rifle Association was misleading the public about the impact of their country's strict gun control policies. The ad, which can be viewed on the NRA's Web site (www. nra.org), says that murders with guns, assaults with guns, armed robberies, and home invasions all increased after the Australian government confiscated about 660,000 privately owned firearms in 1996. "According to the Australian government–and official statistics–the NRA has its facts wrong," The Christian Science Monitor reported.

Well, yes and no. The murder claim is somewhat misleading. According to the Australian Institute of Criminology, a government-funded think tank, the number of gun homicide victims dropped from 104 in 1996 to 79 in 1997. But since 35 of the 1996 victims died in a single episode (the Port Arthur massacre, which was the catalyst for the government's gun seizure), the number of gun homicide incidents actually rose. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the total number of homicides (with and without guns) also rose, from 350 in 1996 to 360 in 1997, before dropping to 333 in 1998. That year there were 54 gun homicides, about half as many as in 1996.

The NRA's other claims are on firmer ground. ABS figures indicate that, between 1996 and 1998, assaults rose 16 percent, armed robberies jumped a startling 73 percent, and unlawful entries went up 8 percent.

Defenders of gun control cite the 1998 decline in homicide as evidence that Australia's policies are working, while opponents cite the two-year increases in other offenses as evidence that the government has encouraged criminals by disarming law-abiding citizens. It's hard to say who is right. Homicides in Australia have been fluctuating since the late 1980s, and the upward trends in assaults, robberies, and unlawful entries began before 1996. Still, it may be significant that the robbery trend accelerated dramatically after potential victims were forced to turn in their guns.

No Liberté Online

By Sara Rimensnyder

A recent court decision in France may presage a frustrating conflict between the borderless Internet and the French elite. On July 24, the American Web company Yahoo! testified in Paris against a Gallic court's ruling that it must block French users' access to a site where people buy and sell Nazi memorabilia. Jean-Jacques Gomez, the judge who decided the case, argues that Yahoo! disregarded French territorial boundaries by making the site accessible in France, where it is illegal to sell racist merchandise.

Gomez had ordered Yahoo! to return to court in July with evidence that they had taken steps to block French users. Instead, company co-founder Jerry Yang sent an expert witness to testify that such a barrier would be
technically impossible. In interviews, Yang has been blunt: "We are not going to change the content of our sites in the United States just because someone in France is asking us to," he told the French daily Liberation. Gomez will issue his decision in mid-August.

In related news, the French government is pushing the Liberty of Communication Act, which would require anyone publishing a Web site to register with the government. The bill's opponents have pointed out that anyone who wants to publish anonymously can evade the law simply by using a foreign Web host.

French leaders aren't oblivious to such logistical problems. At a G-8 meeting in May, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin called for "a collective response on a global scale" to Internet crime and terrorism.

The Net, an intrinsically global medium, clearly has the French authorities in a tizzy. They've fought doggedly in recent years to defend their territory against cultural marauders (read: the United States, with its blockbuster movies and Anglo-Saxon words). But what to do about the confounded Internet? Convince the whole world to conform to Paris' views on free speech? That's gonna take a lot of vin rouge.

Back to School

By Jesse Walker

One popular cause during the last several years has been the drive to close the School of the Americas, a training center for Latin American soldiers in Fort Benning, Georgia. The school's alumni include former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, former Haitian dictator Raoul Cedras, and Salvadoran death squad chief Roberto D'Aubuisson, along with many less-famous autocrats, assassins, and thugs. Critics have long charged the institute with teaching torture, terrorism, and politically motivated murder.

These charges were bolstered in 1996, when some of the school's manuals came to light. The Pentagon subsequently admitted that the texts discussed such techniques as "motivation by fear, payment of bounties for enemy dead, false imprisonment and the use of truth serum," while denying that the materials were still in use. (Prior to this, of course, the military had denied that such texts existed at all.)

In May, as the argument grew more audible, Congress stepped in and shut down the School of the Americas. In the same breath, it opened the Defense Institute for Hemispheric Security Cooperation, which will teach the same curriculum to the same people, in the same place. Amazingly, this was packaged as a reform, but Sen. Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.) wasn't fooled –the changes, he told the press, were "basically cosmetic." This was an impressive admission, given its source: Coverdell, who died of a stroke in July, had long opposed closing or seriously reforming the school.

Recoding Downtown

By Charles Paul Freund

Here's a market paradox: In recent decades, the massive redevelopment of many older cities has led to the seeming antithesis of dynamic urban life. Innumerable downtown streets have been lined with new but sterile "box" buildings and are often devoid of any activity not generated by offices. There are many causes behind this effect, including bad development, zoning, and a tangle of safety code restrictions.

Safety codes have been deadly for older buildings. Many owners who have considered rehabilitating old properties have had to abandon their plans when faced with the enormous costs of bringing a structure "up to code." The reason is the bureaucratization of safety. Like all regulation, such codes cover ever-expanding territory, from wiring to stairwells to hallway widths. In theory, the codes are not ironclad: Inspectors usually have leeway in passing on building elements–such as hallways–that may not impinge on safety. But safety bureaucrats are like other bureaucrats: Faced with a choice, they are likely to say no. Owners, faced with having to widen every hallway in a building (or not knowing what they'll be faced with), are that much more likely just to demolish their old properties.

But in 1998, New Jersey revamped its approach to such codes. The state drew up a set of highly detailed new guidelines that give more importance to some rules than to others, depending on the nature of the project. A proud state official recently told The Washington Post, "We've transformed a regulatory crap shoot into an informed business decision." According to the state, the new rules have saved building owners as much as 25 percent on rehab projects.

In April, Maryland adopted a similar reform. But in that notoriously anti-business state, the rationale wasn't a fair break for building owners; it was the state's war on "sprawl." Maryland wants to use these "smart codes" to pit its older cities against its booming suburbs.

Even so, if "smart codes" manage to spread further, it won't be because of safety bureaucrats, who'd lose power under them. It'll be through pressure from property owners and others who stand to profit. Profiting most, however, will be the cities and those who use them.