Monday, November 18, 2002

John Poindexter is trying to build a computer system for the government that would directly access information on consumers' (what used to be called citizens') travel arrangements, credit card purchases, and so forth, saying that we need to "break down the stovepipes" that separate government and commercial databases. I was going to write an indignant entry about how this relegates the fourth amendment to an irrelevant stovepipe. But then I realized, that would be wrong. Poindexter's system wouldn't really change the civil liberties of Americans much at all.

Given the anemic state of American data privacy laws (compared to what exists in Europe), most commercial organizations are free to collect and share data essentially at will --- including the government. Your bank and credit card company, for instance, can already share just about anything they know about you. (A recent law requires them to stop if you've specifically told them to --- but they generally aren't particularly up front about letting you know you have the option).

So relax, folks, your fourth amendment rights are not at risk. What you may have considered your private information really wasn't, anyway.

Or at least that's where you get if you don't acknowledge that in the modern world, large corporations are as much of a threat to civil rights as government agencies, and government regulators have a useful role to play in keeping them in check.


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