ACLU Urges SEC to Halt Internet Snoop Plan; Asks Congress to Strengthen Driver's License Privacy

April 4, 2000 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — In a letter sent today to the Securities and Exchange Commission, the American Civil Liberties Union called a plan to create an Internet surveillance system for monitoring online fraud “a potential threat to the privacy and free speech rights of Americans,” and urged the agency to suspend the plan.

In other privacy news today, the ACLU urged a Congressional committee to strengthen the privacy protections for the personal data that states require individuals to submit to get a driver’s license. ” The current state of the law is a recipe for disaster,” ACLU Legislative Counsel Gregory T. Nojeim told the Senate Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee. “Absent a strong signal from Congress – and enticed by the millions of dollars that the sale of personal information can generate – states will inevitably succumb to efforts of private entrepreneurs who continue to seek private data.”

On the question of the Securities and Exchange Commission, the ACLU said that according to recent news reports, the SEC has asked a number of companies to submit proposals for the use of a so-called “webcrawler” to intercept a wide range of Internet speech, which may include bulletin board messages, chat rooms, webpages and even some e-mail.

“The plans you are considering raise questions under a number of laws that restrict or prohibit governmental surveillance activities,” the ACLU said in a letter to SEC Chairman Arthur Levitt, Jr. “Widespread trawling of the Internet will inevitably result in the collection of First Amendment-protected speech.”

In addition to raising concerns about free speech rights and violations of the constitutional guarantees against unreasonable search and seizure, the ACLU pointed out potential violations of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act and current federal guidelines on criminal investigations.

“A nationwide Internet surveillance scheme would run counter to these legal precedents and discourage ordinary citizens from carrying on lively discussions via computer networks, thus destroying the very “marketplace of ideas” that the First Amendment was designed to foster,” the letter said.

In its letter, the ACLU asked agency officials to meet with other members of the privacy and free speech communities to address their concerns about the surveillance plan.

“The SEC certainly has legitimate concerns about online fraud, but the answer to the problem cannot be a system that monitors lawful online speech,” said Barry Steinhardt, Associate Director of the ACLU and an author of the letter along with ACLU Washington National Office Director Laura W. Murphy.

“If the SEC were to propose a similar type of surveillance system in the offline world, you’d have agents sifting through your garbage and listening in on your coffee shop conversations,” he added. “Whether you take it offline or online, that kind of government monitoring is inconsistent with a democratic society.”

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