April 7, 1999
WASHINGTON -- Even though the same activists tend to promote data privacy and online free speech, the two are rarely seen as related issues. But some speakers at the Computers, Freedom and Privacy conference here Wednesday urged Internet users and policy makers to recognize the links between privacy and censorship.
"Once a government establishes some kind of content as being illegal, it needs a way to locate the person who posted the illegal content," said David Sobel, legal counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "Governments will increasingly be pressured to find individual Internet speakers," which means "an increasing assault on online anonymity," Sobel said.
The link between privacy and free speech also manifests itself in countries with repressive governments, other observers said.
Jagdesh Parikh, an official with Human Rights Watch, noted that the Chinese government advocates building a national intranet of sorts, one that would enable the government to block Chinese citizens from receiving digital information from outside China, while at the same time letting government officials monitor online communications among dissidents.
But concerns about abuse of private data gathered by the government aren't limited to repressive regimes. Even information that is routinely -- and innocently -- gathered by U.S. government agencies such as motor vehicles licensing authorities can easily be misused by third parties, according to another expert.
Latanya Sweeney, a professor at the Heinz School of Public Policy and Management at Carnegie Mellon University, pointed out that pulling together publicly available data from a number of different sources -- such as driver's license records, birth certificates, and property ownership records -- can yield unsettling results.
That may soon change.
"There's a myth in our society that if you remove the name, phone number or other individual piece of identifying information from a public record, that that record can't be traced back" to its owner, Sweeney said. But data mining has made it relatively easy for such records to be cross-checked against one another, producing a harvest of personal information about individuals that can be used in identity theft, she said.
"It's almost as if technology is at war with privacy," Sweeney said.