Communications Technology Study Finds Privacy Is a Thing of the Past

American Banker, December 11, 1985 | Go to article overview

Communications Technology Study Finds Privacy Is a Thing of the Past


WASHINGTON (AP) -- The explosion in communications technology has so outpaced privacy laws that Americans have little or no protection against a plethora of new ways for government or private adversaries to pry into their lives, a congressional agency recently reported.

The nonpartisan Office of Technology Assessment found that 35 out of 142 domestic federal agencies use or plan to use various electronic surveillance methods, including modern devices not governed by a landmark 1968 law that circumscribed the use of wiretaps and bugs -- concealed microphones.

The office said 36 agencies, not counting those in foreign intelligence, already use a total of 85 computerized record systems for investigative or intelligence purposes, and maintain 288 million files on 114 million people. The report raised the "technically feasible" specter of these being linked into a single data base network that could track untold numbers of citizens without due cause.

The report, requested by House and Senate committees, noted that many new and uncontrolled methods of surveillance are made possible by the very technologies of which more and more Americans are availing themselves -- electronic mail, computer conferencing, cellular and cordless telephones, beepers and electronic pagers. Intercepting such devices is easy, and "the law has not kept pace," the agency said.

Other devices, such as miniature television cameras and pen registers -- which monitor the numbers called on a given telephone line -- have created new ways to spy on people even if their own communications habits are more old-fashioned, the agency noted.

Rep. Robert W. Kastenmeier, D-Wis., chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on courts and civil liberties, said the study "shows how the law in this area has broken down; it is up to Congress to fix it. If we fail to act, the personal and business communications of Americans will not have the privacy protection they deserve."

Sen. Charles McC. Mathias, R-Md., said the report "documents how new and more intrusive forms of snooping have followed in the wake of the exciting advances in communications technology" and agreed Congress must "bring federal privacy laws up to date. …

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