Privacy group says US laws needed to rein in surveillance

U.S. laws haven’t kept up with the government’s ability to usetechnology to spy on people, according to a report issued Wednesdayby the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT).

As U.S. government agencies conduct domestic surveillance andattempt to gain access to Internet search records, privacy laws donot adequately deal with technologies that allow the governmentaccess to all kinds of digital records, said CDT, a privacy andcivil liberties advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.

“On balance, you have to admit the digital revolution has been asurveillance boon for law enforcement,” said Jim Dempsey, CDT’spolicy director. “There is more information more easily availablethan ever before.”

A gap between surveillance technologies and privacy laws to protectU.S. residents is “growing every day,” Dempsey said. The CDTreport, “Digital Search & Seizure: Updating Privacy Protectionsto Keep Pace with Technology,” focuses on three technologies:keystroke logging software used by law enforcement agencies;location technologies such as GPS (global positioning systems) andmobile phones that can be used to track user locations; and massivedigital storage services, such as the large e-mail inboxes providedby Google Inc., Yahoo Inc. and other companies.

GPS and huge inboxes offered by Web-based e-mail services have manyadvantages for customers, but they give the government”unprecedented access” to information, CDT said.

The 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act does not adequatelycover law enforcement uses of these new technologies, CDT said. Thegroup called for the government and technology industry to worktogether on new privacy laws.

“The government complains that new technology makes its job moredifficult, but the fact is that digital technology has vastlyaugmented the government’s powers,” Dempsey said. “The capacity ofInternet technology to collect and store data increases every day,as does the volume of personal information we willingly surrenderas we take advantage of new services.”

U.S. President George Bush has defended recent surveillanceprograms — including a controversial decision to allow theNational Security Agency to spy on U.S. residents’ e-mail and phonecalls without a court-issued warrant — as necessary to fightterrorism.

Google has fought attempts by the U.S. Department of Justice togain access to more than a million of its search records, saying incourt records filed this month that giving up search results wouldundermine customers’ trust and expose the company’s trade secrets.CDT’s Dempsey said most Internet-based companies do a good job ofliving up to their privacy policies, except when governmentinvestigators ask for records.

“The strongest privacy policy in the world disappears in the faceof a government subpoena,” he said.

Asked if users of these technologies should avoid them, CDTpresident Jerry Berman said no. But technology companies couldbetter inform customers of how they comply with government requestsfor information, he said.

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