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OPINION SPLIT ON WEB PRIVACY

Source: Washington Post

Posted on April 4, 2001

      More than half of Americans would back efforts by law enforcement authorities to snoop through suspects' e-mail, possibly because of the public's growing concern about child pornography, fraud and other crimes online, according to a new study.

      At the same time, an even larger proportion of people want new laws to protect themselves from government and other kinds of unwanted surveillance online, and less than a third trust government officials to do the right thing, said the study released yesterday by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

      seemingly contradictory findings, gleaned from a survey of 2,096 adults in February and March, underscore the challenges facing lawmakers and regulators as they strive to balance the sometimes conflicting needs of computer users, the Internet industry and law enforcement authorities.

      The Pew study comes as Congress is considering an array of proposed laws that, if approved, could reshape how people and business use the Internet.

      There's no question that privacy and security online remain paramount concerns. Nearly nine of 10 of the adults surveyed worry about credit card theft online. About 80 percent fear that the Internet could be used to commit fraud. About 82 percent also fear that terrorists "can wreak havoc" on the Internet, while more than 90 percent of those surveyed expressed "revulsion" at child pornography online.

      Possibly because of such fears, 54 percent of those surveyed favor allowing federal authorities to intercept e-mail. When authorized by a court order, the FBI uses a system called Carnivore to review e-mail messages. Only about one in five people said they had heard about the Carnivore system. Still, some 62 percent believe legislators should pass new laws protecting privacy online.

      "The dichotomy in these numbers does show it's going to be very difficult for Congress to create legislation that makes sense for Internet users, the Internet industry and law enforcement," said Susannah Fox, director of research for the project.

      "Americans are searching for an Information Age answer to the age-old question of how to balance their yearning to be protected from criminals and their yearning to prevent government authorities from abusing their investigative powers," Fox said.

      Privacy advocates expressed skepticism about the results. David Sobel, general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center in the District, said he believes Americans are more uncomfortable with Carnivore-style surveillance than the Pew study suggests.

      "It seems to be at odds with other polling we've seen," Sobel said. He added that Carnivore poses a new threat of government intrusion because "there is no outside oversight. The system requires complete trust."

      Evan Hendricks, editor of the Privacy Times newsletter, said few people have an idea of how Carnivore works. "The public's simply not aware of the power of Carnivore and the likelihood it will be abused if it's run as the FBI proposes," he said. But FBI spokesman Jay Spadafore said the survey confirms what the agency believes. "We're pleased with the results," he said. "It confirms our belief that the American public is concerned about crime on the Internet."

      The Pew Internet & American Life Project is a nonprofit initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts, a Philadelphia-based family foundation, formed to examine the impact of the Internet on society. The full report can be found at http://www.pewinternet.org/reports/toc.asp?Report=32




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