Privacy group: U.S. laws needed to rein in surveillance

Laws do not adequately deal with technologies that give government access to digital records, CDT says

U.S. laws haven't kept up with the government's ability to use technology to spy on people, according to a report issued Wednesday by the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT).

As U.S. government agencies conduct domestic surveillance and attempt to gain access to Internet search records, privacy laws do not adequately deal with technologies that allow the government access to all kinds of digital records, said CDT, a privacy and civil liberties advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.

"On balance, you have to admit the digital revolution has been a surveillance boon for law enforcement," said Jim Dempsey, CDT's policy director. "There is more information more easily available than ever before."

A gap between surveillance technologies and privacy laws to protect U.S. residents is "growing every day," Dempsey said. The CDT report, "Digital Search & Seizure: Updating Privacy Protections to Keep Pace with Technology," focuses on three technologies: keystroke logging software used by law enforcement agencies; location technologies such as GPS (global positioning systems) and mobile phones that can be used to track user locations; and massive digital storage services, such as the large e-mail inboxes provided by Google, Yahoo, and other companies.

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

The 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act does not adequately cover law enforcement uses of these new technologies, CDT said. The group called for the government and technology industry to work together on new privacy laws.

"The government complains that new technology makes its job more difficult, but the fact is that digital technology has vastly augmented the government's powers," Dempsey said. "The capacity of Internet technology to collect and store data increases every day, as does the volume of personal information we willingly surrender as we take advantage of new services."

U.S. President George Bush has defended recent surveillance programs -- including a controversial decision to allow the National Security Agency to spy on U.S. residents' e-mail and phone calls without a court-issued warrant -- as necessary to fight terrorism.

Google has fought attempts by the U.S. Department of Justice to gain access to more than a million of its search records, saying in court records filed this month that giving up search results would undermine customers' trust and expose the company's trade secrets. CDT's Dempsey said most Internet-based companies do a good job of living up to their privacy policies, except when government investigators ask for records.

"The strongest privacy policy in the world disappears in the face of a government subpoena," he said.

Asked if users of these technologies should avoid them, CDT president Jerry Berman said no. But technology companies could better inform customers of how they comply with government requests for information, he said.

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