Uncle Sam is keeping an eye on you online big time

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Uncle Sam is keeping an eye on you online big time By LANCE GAY Scripps Howard News Service June 23, 2000

WASHINGTON - While President Clinton has led an effort to crack down on corporate snooping and impose new regulations on business, privacy advocates say federal agencies still are collecting vast amounts of data on visitors to taxpayer-sponsored Web sites.

Many government Web sites post notices, warning visitors that their activities are being monitored, and could be shared with others.

"You have no expectation of privacy using this system,'' says the site operated by the U.S. Postal Service's inspector general. "All uses of this system, and all data contained or transferred through this system, may be monitored, read, captured, recorded or copied in any manner and disclosed in any manner."

Privacy advocates say that sort of notice isn't enough. They maintain that under the 1974 Privacy Act, the government has no right to be collecting data on anyone. The act limits government agencies in collecting information on individuals, and prohibits sharing the data with others.

"Giving notice, or simply mentioning a privacy policy, is not enough," said Jason Catlett, a privacy advocate at junkbusters.com, who says there is no reason for the government to monitor what citizens are doing online. "There's a mistaken idea they can just put this in a privacy policy, and do what they want."

Catlett said Internet users aren't aware of the power of the Internet to snoop, and are lulled into the mistaken belief they are anonymous online.

"This technology is the most powerful and pervasive surveillance device ever developed," he said. "Most consumers think it's like channel surfing on TV."

Jack Lew, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, this week ordered all federal agencies to review their privacy policies and Web practices in the wake of disclosures by Scripps Howard News Service that the White House itself was engaged in secret snooping of people visiting anti-drug sites operated by the White House drug office.

The snooping involved inserting small software programs called cookies into the computers of people who go online. These devices are used by commercial companies to track what people do online.

Lew ordered the agencies to shut down any cookie machines they, or contractors working for government agencies, might be operating. He said cookie programs can be used only if there is "compelling need" to gather data from visitors to the sites, and public disclosure of the data collected. The data collected by the White House drug office was collected by the New York advertising firms Ogilvie and Mather, and Doubleclick.Com.

The activities embarrassed Clinton, who pushed Congress to adopt strict new laws banning commercial tracking of children's online activities, and has backed Federal Trade Commission efforts to impose government regulations on use of cookies and other tracking technologies.

Andrew Shen, a policy analyst with the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said the public won't continue to use government Web sites if information on them is collected. "They should be allowed to visit anonymously - they are there for the public,'' he said.

Internet analysts say sophisticated tracking programs, like cookies, aren't needed on government Web sites.

The Postal Service uses cookie programs to help people calculate the costs of stamps they are buying online at Internet Web sites. But the agency's privacy statement states that it's possible for consumers to buy stamps without using cookies, although that makes the transaction more complicated. Agency spokesmen were at a conference Friday and could not be reached for further comment.

Privacy policies vary widely in the government. The FBI says it collects the Internet addresses of people who visit its Web site each year - all 35 million of them.

"This information is primarily collected for statistical analysis" to determine which sites are of interest. "In certain circumstances, however, we may take additional steps to identify you based on this information," it says. The Labor Department says it also records the identities of visitors to its sites.

Privacy advocates urged Congress to hold hearings on government tracking policies.

"Monitoring citizens' use of government Web sites raises profound privacy and constitutional concerns,'' said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

House Republican leader Dick Armey of Texas earlier this month asked the congressional General Accounting Office to conduct a survey of privacy policies in the government.

Privacy groups on the Net: http://www.junkbusters.com, and the Electronic Privacy Information Center at http:// www.epic.org


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), June 23, 2000

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