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Thursday, January 26, 2006

Do You Want the Goverment Sticking it's Fingers deeper into Your Data Pie ?

News Analysis: Between the imminently possible renewal of the Patriot Act and the government's squeeze on Google for data, businesses are facing a few questions: Just how much reach does the government have into your database, and how onerous is that for business?
It's an intense time for skirmishes between government and corporate America.
The Senate will take up the question of renewing the Patriot Act during the week of Jan. 30, and Google is fighting tooth and nail to keep search terms and search results out of the hands of the government.
For the private sector, the government's desire to fiddle with data raises a few questions: Just how much control does the government have over grabbing your data, and how onerous is that for business?
Regarding their effect on enterprises, the Patriot Act and the government's squeeze on Google are two different beasts.
According to Orin Kerr, an associate professor of law at the George Washington Law School who worked on legislation that eventually became the Patriot Act, the difference lies in the fact that the Patriot Act tweaked pre-existing laws—the Electronic Communications Privacy Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
Conversely, the government's move on search companies doesn't implicate pre-existing law, since it's a simple subpoena.
The distinction isn't making business leaders relax, though—rather, they're tensing up as government's requests for information grow ever more obtrusive.
"Some of the stuff that's been of greatest concern to businesses with the Patriot Act request has been the increasing likelihood that the information requested would be open-ended and increasingly onerous," said Susan Hackett, senior vice president and general counsel of the Association of Corporate Counsel, in an interview with eWEEK.
Google's skirmish with the government hasn't directly affected enterprises, beyond a general sense of unease that the government won't stop with anonymous search data but will instead gain insight into what should be private research.
For example: Dr. M. Lewis Temares, vice president of IT for the University of Miami, noted that on a corporate level, he's been led to believe that the nature of his searches won't spill out into public or government discourse, given that there are things he searches for that could potentially reveal trade secrets.
"I'm [hypothetically] negotiating with Bell South with regards to their practices in terms of a future contract," Temares said.
"I use the search engine to find out what competitors are doing. All of a sudden I've got people saying personal things about their experiences, their cellular experiences, that maybe they don't want to be made public.
"The government can see we've talked about various things in regards to competitiveness," Temares said.
"That may affect on a corporate basis everything you can say with regards to private
conversations. Maybe the Federal Trade Commission [would get involved], maybe somebody said something about the government's interference. Maybe government takes it to another level: 'If he's saying something about the government…'"
The search results and terms turned over by search companies thus far have reportedly been stripped of anything that would allow them to be traced back to users, as per government agreement.
The obtrusiveness of government if it succeeds in its Google subpoena is at this point hypothetical.
The effects of the Patriot Act are not. They are hard to gauge, though, given that the Patriot Act inflicted a gag order on those it hit up for information.
"It's difficult to get a good sense of what they've been asked for, because they're under a gag order," Hackett said.
"But with conversations with folks who've shared general thoughts on this, they've drawn a distinction between requests for Mr. Smith's transactions with you from March 20 to June 30 of this year. That's reasonably defined, easy to find in your systems."
Contrast that with what increasingly concerns businesses, though, Hackett said: namely, the government coming to a corporation and requesting a large and nebulous cloud of information—requesting, say, all information on customers and transactions done in hotspot Middle Eastern countries.
"These huge, open-ended, '[You] don't know what [we're] investigating but we're putting you in charge of giving us information that we don't know if you have' investigations" are what worry businesses about the government's Google move, she said.

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