"'The right to be let alone," Supreme Court justice Louis
Brandeis once said, is "the right most valued by civilized men."
That right seems under renewed attack today in a world where
personal records are stored digitally and can be obtained by those
clever enough to hack in or by simply grabbing a laptop computer.
Nearly every day, a new headline tells of Americans' private
information being stolen by criminals or combed through by
government agencies seeking terrorists.
What's the outlook for privacy? It's probably going to get worse
before it gets better, some experts say. But new protections, mostly
enacted at the state level, are helping. Congress may finally get
into the act as early as this week, though consumer advocates say
new federal laws may actually weaken privacy protections, depending
on how they are worded.
Congress is acting none too soon, say some observers. "The
Congress is way late - a day late and a dollar short - when it comes
to privacy," says Robert Gellman, a privacy and information policy
consultant in Washington, D.C., who served for nearly two decades as
a congressional aide focused on privacy issues. "All the creative
things that have been going on in privacy have been going on at the
Since February 2005, when data-aggregation company ChoicePoint
revealed that scammers had tricked it into providing them with the
private financial records of 163,000 people, at least 88 million
individual records held by the government or private companies have
been exposed to possible theft, according to the Privacy Rights
Clearinghouse in San Diego. The incidents occurred in a variety of
ways, from both government and private databases.
In one highly publicized case, the Social Security numbers and
other personal information of some 28 million US military veterans
were stolen from a government employee's home in May. In one of many
private examples, 243,000 customer records of hotels.com were lost
when a laptop computer was stolen from a vehicle in February. The
drumbeat of losses continues: Last week, the US Agriculture
Department said a hacker had broken into its computer system and may
have stolen Social Security numbers and photos of 26,000 of the
department's employees and contractors.
In addition, new questions are being raised about government eyes
on personal data. An investigation by the Associated Press found
that federal and local law enforcement agencies routinely mined
telephone records of Americans without obtaining subpoenas or
warrants. According to the AP, they did so by employing private data
brokers, who used deceptive and questionable tactics to obtain the
The National Security Agency (NSA) has come under fire for
allegedly wiretapping Americans without obtaining a warrant. In an
article last week in Salon, the online magazine, two ex-employees of
AT&T said a hidden room at an AT&T center may be being used by the
NSA for phone surveillance. Last week, AT&T announced a
information may be personal to you, these records constitute
business records that are owned by AT&T," the statement said. "As
such, AT&T may disclose such records to protect its legitimate
business interests, safeguard others, or respond to legal process."
On Monday, President Bush and Vice President Cheney blasted the
New York Times for revealing a secret government program that,
according to the Times, can track banking transactions made by
Americans between US and foreign banks. They declared the effort to
be legal and an important aid in the war on terrorism.
At this point, observers say, Congress seems unready to pick up
the political hot potato of government snooping that serves national
But Congress is looking at safeguards against ordinary criminals.
Businesses are frustrated by the crazy quilt of state and local
privacy regulations they must know and observe. …