Report: Privacy protections lag behind technology advances

Existing privacy protections are outdated and inadequate to safeguard citizens from possible government intrusions made possible by new information technologies, according to a new report from the Center for Democracy and Technology.

Three new technologies allow government agencies and others to track individuals and their activities to a much greater extent than in the past, according to the report published by the Washington-based technology think tank. Those technologies are expanded online e-mail storage accounts, location-providing cell phones and software to log computer keystrokes.

Existing laws have not kept pace with the technological advances, enabling government surveillance to be easier and more powerful, the report added.

"The gap between law and technology is widening every day, and privacy is eroding," Jim Dempsey, the center's policy director, said in a news release announcing the findings. "What makes this even more troubling is that most users of these new technologies don't realize they are putting their privacy in jeopardy."

For example, Web-based e-mail accounts are growing in popularity and capacity, with the capability of storing multiple megabytes of information. Yet many users of Web-based e-mail accounts do not realize that their e-mails stored online are subjected to weaker privacy protections under the law than are e-mails that are kept on a person's own computer.

A government agency needs a judicial warrant to search a home computer, but the agency may be able to access a user's online email account with only a subpoena issued without judicial review, the report said.

Other concerns are being raised over cell phones. While turned on, whether on a call or not, a cell phone now can be used as a tracking beacon enabling a government agency to identify geographic locations for the holder of the cell phone. Such surveillance currently is governed by a weak hodgepodge of laws and court precedents rather than an explicit standard, the report stated.

A third emerging anti-privacy technology is keystroke-logging software that can record everything a person does on his or her computer. It has the potential for becoming "government spyware" with inadequate legal controls, according to the report.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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