Privacy is not a major issue in presidential race

The Democratic and Republican candidates for U.S. president aren’t giving enough emphasis to privacy and civil rights issues, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and Bob Barr, the Libertarian candidate for president, said Friday.

Privacy issues received no mention at the Democratic and Republican national conventions during the past two weeks, said Barr, a former Republican congressman from Georgia, speaking at an EPIC press conference. Debates about privacy and civil rights issues, including government surveillance of U.S. residents and routine searches of laptops at U.S. borders, were “nowhere to be seen” at the conventions, Barr said.

Barr spoke during the launch of a new EPIC campaign called Privacy ’08. The goal is to make privacy issues a larger part of the campaign debate and to educate voters about privacy issues, said Marc Rotenberg, EPIC’s executive director. “We need to have this debate,” he said.

Barr called on the next president to rein in government surveillance of U.S. residents and called on Congress to update privacy laws by limiting what private businesses can do with personal data. Libertarians generally oppose new laws and new regulations, but Barr said limitations on the use of personal information are needed.

Both Republican candidate Senator John McCain of Arizona and Democratic candidate Senator Barack Obama of Illinois supported a bill, passed by Congress in July, that updated the nation’s wiretap and surveillance laws. The legislation allows U.S. spy agencies in some cases to intercept the phone calls and e-mails of U.S. residents, based on a suspicion that the person they’re communicating with is connected to terrorists.

Barr called the surveillance bill “breathtaking expansion” of the U.S. government’s power to spy on residents.

A recent housing finance industry bailout bill required a fingerprint registry for housing lenders, Barr added. “I do give these folks [in Congress] credit for great imagination for the number of new databases they come up with,” Barr said.

Both McCain and Obama have included privacy issues in policy statements. “Americans will fully embrace new technologies … only when they are confident that these new advances can be used safely and securely,” McCain’s Web site says.

Obama has said he would restrict how databases containing personal information are used, and he would hold both government and businesses accountable for misusing private data. “The open information platforms of the 21st century can … tempt institutions to violate the privacy of citizens,” he said in a policy paper. “Dramatic increases in computing power, decreases in storage costs and huge flows of information that characterize the digital age bring enormous benefits, but also create risk of abuse.”

Three reporters serving on a panel at the EPIC press conference said they don’t see privacy as a major issue in the 2008 elections. While the U.S. is at a “pivotal moment” in privacy policy, many U.S. residents don’t seem to connect privacy policies to the presidential race, said Charlie Savage, a reporter for The New York Times.

“I’ve not seen a lot of evidence this issue has reached into the mass voter awareness,” Savage said.

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