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Government wants to bore Web peephole

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By ROBYN BLUMNER

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 12, 2000


While giving a speech to high-tech executives in the heart of Silicon Valley, President Clinton established a new gauge for privacy on the Web: the Chelsea meter. "I won't send e-mail to Chelsea," bemoaned the president. "I don't think it's secure."

Clinton's lament is sadly laughable. Virtually since he took office, his administration has tried to bore a government peephole in cyberspace, with new efforts on the way. Clinton may want to send Chelsea a personal note for her eyes only, but his administration wants the government to read over everyone's shoulder.

When strong cryptography would have guaranteed users nearly impenetrable e-mail, the administration fought tooth-and-nail against its distribution. For years encryption software was listed as a munition and blocked from export, suppressing its use in commercial products. It wasn't until last year that the White House finally caved on the issue.

But this was just the first salvo in what will no doubt be a long, savage campaign by the government to destroy privacy in cyberspace. Right now, the Justice Department and FBI are wringing their hands over the anonymity of Internet users and are devising ways to uncover them. A just-released report by the President's Working Group on Unlawful Conduct on the Internet, headed by Attorney General Janet Reno and filled with senior officials and federal law enforcement types, complains about legal and technological barriers to tracking down cybercriminals and says "new investigatory tools" are needed.

According to the report, law enforcement is stymied by the Internet's lack of traceability and the ease with which people can disguise or misrepresent their identity. Without leaving a permanent record, e-mail can be directed through a half dozen countries before being delivered, and anonymous remailer services can make it impossible to know where it came from.

Of course, these options enhance the privacy afforded Web users, but since they get in the way of law enforcement, the government wants them overcome. The working group doesn't make specific recommendations for new laws or regulations but gives clear signals that it views the Web as way too private. Wayne Madsen, senior fellow at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, predicts what's coming: "The law enforcement community doesn't like to lose. When they think they've lost in one place, like in the crypto policy, they just make up that ground another place."

Madsen believes this report is laying the groundwork for legislative or regulatory enactments requiring every person on the Internet to provide identifying information. And, in fact, the report goes out of its way to justify such a scheme, disputing the contention that people should be able to communicate anonymously online.

In the name of protecting public safety, the report notes, individuals "opening a bank account or registering a car" are not allowed anonymity. Indeed, to defeat money laundering, the report says, "many financial institutions have substantial customer identification requirements."

Sure they do, because the government forces banks to collect information in order to spy on their depositors -- a terrific intrusion into our financial privacy. But forcing Internet service providers to rat on their customers treads on something even more sacred: the First Amendment.

Anonymity and pseudonymity have a long tradition in this country. Thomas Paine first published Common Sense, a polemic on why we should break from Britain, as An Englishman. Abolitionists wrote under pseudonyms to protect themselves from arrest and retribution.

Today, people with sensitive problems -- victims of domestic violence, HIV sufferers and recovering drug addicts -- use online pseudonyms to converse with one another without fear of disclosure. And the Internet has become a lifeline to those oppressed people who use their anonymity as a way to send secret messages to the outside world. During the Serbian aggression in Kosovo, ethnic Albanians used the Internet to provide accounts of the atrocities -- a fact even Reno's working group was forced to recognize.

Traceability, though, goes beyond just knowing who the Internet subscribers are. Due to the great expense and technical difficulty of doing so, most Internet providers don't hang on to computer data that reveals the sources and destinations of transmission, making tracing virtually impossible. FBI Director Louis Freeh, a member of the working group, has told a Senate subcommittee: "The telephone industry is required by FCC regulation to maintain subscriber and call information for a fixed period of time. It would be beneficial for law enforcement if Internet service providers adopted a similar approach."

Just as it did to banks and telephone companies, the government is getting ready to turn Internet providers into an extention of its spy network. The rules legislators and regulators come up with to make that possible will reduce Internet privacy for us all. If Clinton thinks his e-mails to Chelsea are unsecure now, just wait.

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