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Published: Sunday, 7/16/2006

Privatizing your privacy

THE all-seeing eye guys at the National Security Agency aren't the only government agents that have been sneaking a peek at private telephone records under highly questionable circumstances.

The Associated Press, detailing an investigation under way in Congress, reports that the FBI, U.S. Marshal's Service, the Department of Homeland Security, and hundreds of local police departments across the country routinely obtain such records from private data brokers.

That the data brokers typically skirt weak privacy laws or simply acquire the information illegally does not seem to matter much, as the process enables authorities seeking evidence in a criminal prosecution to dispense with the usual requirement for subpoenas or warrants.

Why jump through a bunch of legal hoops, the argument goes, when you can just buy the evidence you need? Then you don't have to worry about whether the information was acquired illegally.

Call it privatizing your privacy.

Congressional investigators found that government agencies spent at least $30 million last year to gather personal information, including call lists, unlisted numbers, e-mail aliases, and even the location of individuals deduced from their cell-phone signals.

Often, though, agencies don't have to pay. Data brokers frequently give them the records for nothing in what appears to be a thinly disguised attempt to curry favor with the government.

Aiding law enforcement might seem to be worthwhile but major customers of data brokers also include lending institutions and private investigators, who have little concern for constitutional niceties when tailing a wayward spouse.

U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, Republican of Kentucky, whose subcommittee is holding hearings on the sale of personal information, says current privacy laws are vague and there is little room to doubt him. The question is whether Congress has the intestinal fortitude to do the right thing and shore up the statutes in the face of fears about public safety, especially terrorism.

What must not be forgotten is that the Constitution contains specific language guaranteeing Americans the right to be "secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures."

Many of those in power in Washington today seem to regard the Constitution as nothing more than a dusty old document full of quaint ideals and not what it really is - the engine of a democracy dedicated to preventing an overweening government from trampling on the civil liberties of all Americans.

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