Wednesday, November 20, 2002

The Homeland Security bill that recently passed the Senate has attracted certain carping critiques. For instance, there's the hysterical claim on Slashdot that the law allows any "government entity" (not just the new Homeland Security department) to read your email or voicemail without warrants or probable cause. This claim is technically true, but if you click through to their source, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, you find out that the government entity would have to "convince your service provider that releasing your personal information would be necessary to prevent 'death or serious injury'".

I feel so much better now. It's not as if local cops, or government employees in service to this administration would ever lie. Would they?

Tuesday, November 19, 2002

A few weeks ago, Michael Lewis, writing in the Times, rapped New York AG Eliot Spitzer for using email to make it look as if stock ratings from Citigroup, among others, were being rigged to generate investment banking business. I thought Spitzer had the better of the argument at the time, but Lewis may have been partially right; a more newly unearthed email from then-star analyst Jack Grubman offers a completely different explanation:

"You know everyone thinks I upgraded [AT&T] to get the lead for" a financing for AT&T's wireless unit, Mr. Grubman said in a Jan. 13, 2001, e-mail to [a money-market analyst]. "Nope. I used Sandy [Weill] to get my kids in 92nd St. Y preschool (which is harder than Harvard) and Sandy needed [AT&T Chairman Michael] Armstrong's vote on our board to nuke Reed in showdown. Once coast was clear for both of us (ie Sandy clear victor and my kids confirmed) I went back to my normal negative self on" AT&T, Mr. Grubman wrote. "Armstrong never knew that we both (Sandy and I) played him like a fiddle."

All parties to this story have now issued strong denials, including the 92nd St. Y, which takes extreme umbrage at the notion that a mere million dollar donation could compromise the integrity of its preschool admissions process. (They are, in this respect, rather more punctilious than the real Harvard, which is happy to tell you that "legacy" applicants get favorable treatment, to encourage donations from their parents).

And who knows? There may actually be less here than meets the eye --- after all, the 1999 memo from Grubman to Weill entitled "AT&T and the 92nd St. Y", which obsequiously begs for assistance with the preschool, while at the same time promising to look further for reasons to upgrade AT&T, does not actually say there was any tie between the two activities. Maybe there wasn't! But if there was no illegitimate quid pro quo for the AT&T upgrade, then, why, oh why, did Grubman send email more than a year later saying there was? His current explanation: he "invented a story in an effort to inflate my professional importance."

Well, events leave no doubt that he invented a story somewhere along the line. He said, in 1999, that AT&T was a good buy. Events have proven otherwise. He said, in 2001, that he upgraded his rating on AT&T to get help getting his kids into the right nursery school. He says, now, that the AT&T ratings upgrade (which events have shown to be unjustified) was based on his best professional judgment at the time, and that the story he told last year, about upgrading a stock to get his kids into nursery school, was just a fib he made up to impress other analysts.

So, who was supposed to be impressed? And why?

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.