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-- The Compulsive Splicer

Freedom of the On-line Press a Problem for Janet Reno

by Baron Earl

2000-03-09 23:22:22

The Privacy Protection Act of 1980 was intended to keep the police from shutting down newpapers and killing stories by journalists under the pretense of searching for evidence. Janet Reno wants to change that.

Let's say the police get a search warrant for your computer because they think you've got kiddie porn on your hard drive, or you've written e-mail that may be pertinent to a crime, or the IRS suspects you've cheated on your taxes. The police can sieze your computer and make a copy of the all files on it. They don't have to hurry to make that copy either. If they bring charges against you, your computer and its files are evidence which doesn't have to be returned until after your trial, if ever.

Let's say you're also a journalist who's writing a story about a corrupt local police department, or you've been exposing abuses of the IRS, or you've been publishing stories about a Senator's taste in prostitutes. Is the purpose of the warrant really to search for evidence of a crime, or is the purpose to silence you, to keep the truth from reaching the public, to protect some politician's indiscretions from the bright light of public scrutiny?

Part of what the Privacy Protection Act of 1980 was designed to do was to keep abuses like this from happening. It basically states that if a computer and its files are the subject of a search warrant, and the computer is used "with a purpose to disseminate to the public a newspaper, book, broadcast, or other similar form of public communication", then the police have certain restrictions placed upon them. Namely, that they can't keep the author from getting work done (they can't keep you and your computer apart from each other) and that they must only retrieve and copy data that is pertinent to the warrant being served.

With the advent of the web and the popularity of home pages as a "form of public communication", just about any computer could now fall into this category. A good thing, right? Extend equal protection under the law to everyone, make sure that people who are merely accused of a crime (not proven guilty) can go on with their lives, and make sure that police don't fish through all of your computer files looking at your entire life history while they're investigating a possible crime. If there is evidence of wrongdoing, the police can make copies of the evidence and go on their way, and make their case at your trial.

Well, according to Janet Reno, allowing U.S. citizens to have this much privacy is a Bad Thing. Now that these privacy protections apply to almost everyone's computer, she wants to get rid of these protections altogether.

After all, if you're innocent, you have nothing to hide, right?

Thanks to Eugene Leitl for the link!

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