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Is privacy the digital hobgoblin?

Hot on the Web

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on January 4, 2002
(Issue 2001, Homeland Security)

Ever since Sept. 11, the media has been wringing its hands over how many rights we'll have to sacrifice in order to re-establish domestic security – of whether individual privacy was lost forever.

Of course, public opinion polls showed Americans in general have no such concerns – but then, we're not paid to worry like our brethren in the media.

Still, the media gets to set much of the political agenda in this country (just how do we un-elect them, anyway?), and so even if the security vs. civil liberties issue is fabricated, it's still an issue.

Privacy Rights Clearinghouse

A San Diego-based organization, PRC is less pessimistic than many of the activist groups on issues of privacy. For one thing, its founder and director, Beth Givens, seems to have actually used a computer – an assertion I'd hesitate to make with many of the other advocacy groups.

And so while PRC is cautious about new computer technology, they're not hostile toward it.

Instead, the PRC's web site is more of a how-to destination. They provide practical steps for protecting your financial and medical records from prying eyes, as well as combating identity theft.

White House

I hadn't visited the White House site since the last election – in the interim, it has been completely redesigned, and for the better.

The layout is cleaner and easier to navigate – and the site (which you and I pay for, by the way) is much less a re-election tool than under the previous administration. While there are still pictures of the president everywhere (what else would you come to the White House site for?), it's all presented with less overt politics than in years past.

Most importantly, it's now easier to find the information you want on the site. Clicking on the Your Government link brings up a simple page with links to all the departments of the Executive Branch – and there is even a link to a page with links to Congress and the courts.

Of course, the main White House page most days of late has had information on the ongoing war against terrorism. It's not journalism, so you're only getting the administration's side, but it's still informative.

Office of Homeland Security

The newly created cabinet-level department to coordinate domestic security already has its own web site up and running. From here, you can find position papers and other information on what policy changes the government is proposing in the fights against terrorists.

Electronic Frontier Foundation

Long before the ACLU ever realized the fund-raising possibilities of the Internet, the Electronic Frontier Foundation was out there fighting for our online free speech rights. In fact, the EFF was out there battling when going online meant dialing up your local bulletin board system (BBS).

While there doesn't seem to be much directly related to the Sept. 11 aftermath on the EFF site, they mostly are involved in legal cases – so their involvement may not come to fruition for months or even years.

Yahoo > Issues and Causes > Civil Rights

Oh my goodness, are there a lot of groups out there competing for donors dollars all in the name of protecting us from the government! Talk about a growth industry ...

Anyway, Yahoo's listings organize these various advocacy groups into categories like censorship, privacy, religion and property rights. Within each are dozens of groups all claiming to fight to protect our rights.

Of course, given that many of these groups have diametrically opposed philosophies from one another, odds are that most of us will find at least one group that more or less agrees with our positions.