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She said the district office would not use its computer access to compile complete new lists of all individuals living in an area that then would be matched against computerized lists of taxpayers.
“There has been a real misunderstanding," she said. "We're not taking wholesale lists for computer matching purposes, we are using our direct access to track individual taxpayers. We need this detailed information when we file a tax lien against someone or check to make sure a taxpayer's financial statement is correct."
PRIVACY ISSUE RAISED
James C. Harrington, an attorney in the state office of the A.C.L.U. in Austin, said that even though the information the I.R.S. would receive by computer was public, the use of county data conflicted with one of Congress' chief goals in protecing Federal records; a guarantee in the Privacy Act that the information an individual provides the Government for one purpose will not be used for another without the individual's permission.
"We generally oppose this kind of cross computerization because despite what any agency says, history tells us that the information the I.R.S. is collecting will be compiled into a giant centralized data base," he said. "History also teaches that we have to develop appropriate legal restraints on all Government agencies."
Tony Bonilla, the chairman of the National Hispanic Leadership Conference, said: "The bottom line is that this project is not necessary. The I.R.S. already has enough information about every taxpayer."
[From the New York Times, Apr. 8, 1984]
U.S. AGENCIES TO GET DIRECT LINK TO CREDIT RECORDS
(By David Burnham)
WASHINGTON, April 7.-Federal agencies will be able to obtain direct 24-hour-aday computer access to Americans' credit records under contracts now being negotiated by the General Services Administration.
The Government has almost completed arrangements for establishing direct electronic links, between about 100 Federal agencies and seven major credit reporting companies that keep records on more than 100 million individuals and companies. The Government already has the legal right to obtain credit information before it grants loans. Once the links are in place, agency personnel could examine, almost instantaneously, the current status of bank loans, liens, divorce records, and department store, oil company and credit card accounts.
DETAILS OF FEDERAL LOANS
In addition, Federal agencies will give the private credit reporting companies details about loans made to individuals or companies by such agencies as the Department of Education or the Small Business Administration.
Authorization for the new links was contained in legislation approved by Congress in 1982, and the sharing of information between the public and private sectors will be carried out under many of the guidelines established in the Fair Credit Reporting Act of 1968.
Robert Ellis Smith, the publisher of The Privacy Times, said Thursday at a House hearing that arrangements for the links were almost complete.
MOST SHOCKING ASPECT
Mr. Smith, testifying before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on civil liberties, said "the most shocking aspect" of the exchange was that the credit reporting business "has a poor reputation for maintaining the accuracy of its information."
He said one of the major credit reporting companies, TRWS Inc., estimated that a third of the million people who each year demand to see their records "challenge the information they see in their files."
An official in the Office of Management and Budget, John F. Donahue, confirmed that the contracts establishing the new communication networks were nearly complete. He said the system was an important new weapon in the Government's arsenal against waste and fraud in Federal programs.
Mr. Donahue said that under new guidelines published by his agency last summer, all agencies that grant loans to individuals or companies, or that sign con
tracts with corporations, are required to make credit checks in which a wide range of personal information will be made available to the Government.
Law-enforcement agencies have more limited access to the detailed credit records. According to Marvin Kaplan, a spokesman for the Association of Credit Bureaus, such agencies as the Federal Bureau of Investigation can obtain only names, addresses, former addresses and places of employment, unless they get a court order. Five of the credit reporting companies collect computerized information about the credit of individual Americans and two collect similar data on companies. The information, generally maintained in large computers and updated monthly, is sold to merchants, banks and other lenders.
REVENUE SERVICES TEST PROTESTED
While the credit information has been used by Government agencies in the past, the combination of the new budget office regulations and the development of the computerized links are expected to make such checks far more extensive.
Also at the Thursday hearing, Alexander C. Hoffman of the Direct Marketing Association testified against a test by the Internal Revenue Service to determine whether national mailing lists can be used to identify individuals who have not paid their taxes.
[From the Christian Science Monitor, Apr. 17, 1984]
WHO'S SNOOPING AND HOW? U.S. AND U.S.S.R. "PEER INTO MIST"
(By Peter Grier)
WASHINGTON.-Pretending to be a Soviet eavesdropper, I peer into the purple mists of nothern Virginia, searching for the Pentagon.
I am standing on the roof of an apartment on upper Wisconsin Avenue, one of the highest spots in Washington. Next door, the spindly legged frame of the new Soviet embassy is just emerging from morning shadows.
From this vantage point, two things about the half-finished embassy quickly become apparent: 1. The Soviets will have a great view. 2. Their antennas will pick up more than HBO and "This Week with David Brinkley."
To the south, next to the gray ribbon of I-395, the Pentagon is clearly visible. To the east is American Telephone & Telegraph's (AT&T) Arlington switching station, which sends an electronic beam of phone calls shooting right over the Soviet site. A few blocks north are the towers of the Naval Security Station and Western Union's Tenleytown microwave relay.
The prospect of foreign aerials in the midst of this electronic interchange illustrates a dilemma of modern telecommunications. Whiz-bang technology makes the United States system the best in the world, say telecommunications experts-but that same technology makes it relatively easy to intercept messages.
The U.S.S.R. from trawlers, trucks, and rooftops, has been listening in on our phone calls for years, say U.S. officials with access to intelligence information.
The National Security Agency, the U.S. government's secretive electronic intelligence arm, scans an unknown amount of US messages headed overseas, according to court records and civil liberties advocates.
Furthermore, it may be perfectly legal for anyone to eavesdrop on computer communications. Experts worry that wiretap law may cover only human speech, leaving the "beedle-de-beep" of computer talk unprotected.
In general, it is the demise of the wire which has made these activities possible. Once, phone calls traveled only paths of copper; today many are shot across country by microwave. Microwave beams can be a third of a mile across, and to catch them, all an eavesdropper must do is hoist small dish antennas in their path. If the beam is an AT&T trunk line, sophisticated computer analysis is then required to unravel
Overseas messages bounced off satellites are even easier to grab. With a good dish, satellite traffic can be stolen from anywhere in the U.S. from ships offshore, "even from Cuba," wryly notes a former White House communications official.
Wireless phones are vulnerable, too. If you have a cheap model, neighbors may be able to hear parts of your conversation on AM radio. Last December, police in Woonsocket, R.I., used this eavedrop technique to snare a 19-member drug ring.
All this doesn't mean there are lots of little guys out there listening to your calls. For the most part, only nations indulge in extensive electronic eavesdropping.
The Soviet Union is the most notorious example. Their buildings-from the old Embassy on 16th Street here, to the United Nations Mission on 67th Street in New York, to the West Coast consulate on top of a San Francisco hill-are topped with forests of antennas. From these rooftops and elsewhere, the U.S.S.R. has been listening in on U.S. phone calls for at least a decade, say government and academic
They are probably after more than military secrets. "Department of Defense [communications] will be encrypted," says an official who worked on the issue for the Carter administration. "The problem is that sensitive private-sector information is vulnerable."
Conversations pulled from the sky have likely helped the Soviets in grain-contract negotiations, for instance, says this source. Their Glen Cove, N.Y., weekend lodge is well-positioned to listen in on Long Island's defense industries. The San Francisco consulate is thought to hide equipment trained in Silicon Valley.
Defensive measures have been taken since the eavesdropping was first discovered. U.S. government communications have been rerouted underground; important defense contractors have been outfitted with government scramblers. AT&T now beams most microwaves in a way that is much more difficult to unravel, says Willis Ware, a Rand Corporation communications expert.
But the U.S.S.R., at the same time, has been updating its interception gadgets. Overall, "the situation is more or less the same," claims a congressional aide with access to intelligence information.
Other nations probably have electronic eavesdropping equipment in the U.S. though not on the same scale as the Russians. The U.S. itself, however, has hightech ears that put the Soviets to shame.
The National Security Agency (NSA), the US electronic intelligence arm, has six times the number of employees of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), according to congressional estimates, and has giant antennas from suburban Washington to Pine Gap, Australia.
Most of these ears are trained on other nations, straining to pick up chatter between Soviet pilots or data from Chinese missiles. But some are turned inward to monitor U.S. phone calls and telegrams headed for other nations.
NSA dishes in Sugar Grove, W.Va., can eavesdrop on a nearby COMSAT post that handles half of all U.S. international satellite communications, says James Bamford in his book "Puzzle Palace.” NSA installations in Maine, Washington State, and California have similar purposes, he claims.
The NSA sweeps up vast numbers of messages headed overseas from the U.S., according to records from a 1982 court case on use of the agency's intelligence. Highspeed computers then rifle through this raw data at leisure. When they stumble across a keyword (“Khomeini," perhaps) that means the message might be useful, it is printed out for further study. Other communications are discarded.
A U.S. appeals court judge, in the context of the '82 suit, did not find this activity illegal. But some congressional aides and civil libertarians feel the NSA impinges on citizens' constitutional rights, as the agency's methods inadvertently filter millions of innocent messages.
"The intrusion is no less serious because it's so quick, or because no trace is left, or because no human is involved," says David Watters, an electrical engineer and former consultant to the CIA.
The NSA's power has been abused in the past: Between 1945 and 1975, under "Operation Shamrock," the agency was given copies of almost all telegrams sent overseas. During the Vietnam war era, the NSA listened to conversations of Jane Fonda, Dr. Benjamin Spock, and others on a “watch list" of 1,650 protesters.
Today, "the NSA does not target the communications of U.S. citizens," a former NSA director, Vice-Adm. Bobby Inman, said in an interview.
"The provisions are also in place to suppress any potential for saving a 'watchlist' of knowledge that's incidentally acquired," he added. "There is not, in fact, a danger of Big Brother turning to listen to the communications of its citizens."
There may be a danger in the U.S. however, of unwanted ears listening in on the communications of computers. The 1968 Crime Control Act, which governs non-national-security wiretaps, prohibits "aural acquisition" of telecommunications. In other words, it's illegal to intercept a communication you can hear and understand. But as anybody who's ever listened to computer "speech" knows, you can hear it but you can't understand it.
Ron Plesser, counsel to the 1977 Privacy Protection Commission, says that means that it may be perfectly legal to eavesdrop on computers. "It's a real issue," he says, "although I don't think it's that hard to fix."
This glitch is a good example of how quick-footed innovation often outflanks efforts to control and protect it.
"These technological advances happen so quickly that the normal process our government and society uses for adjusting to change doesn't have time to take effect," says Arthur Bushkin, a former Commerce Department information policy official.
[From the Christian Science Monitor, Apr. 18, 1984]
WIRETAPS: IS THERE ENOUGH SUPERVISION?
(By Peter Grier)
HAUPPAUGE, NY.-"Keep out" is penciled on the battered door. We knock before entering, to make sure no one's inside.
The room looks like a junior high school teachers' lounge. It is windowless, with aged chairs, a Cyclops eye of a clock, and a carpet that was once orange. Along one wall stretches a counter that would be perfect for eating lunch—if you moved all the tape recorders.
"I wouldn't let you in if they were listening," says Ray Perini, chief of the Suffolk County narcotics bureau.
This, in fact, is a wiretapping lounge. From here, Suffolk County detectives with headphones and Superscope recorders listen in on suspects' phone calls. It's amazing, they claim, how loose-lipped criminals can be.
"They say stuff like, 'You talk, my phone is tapped,'" says Mr. Perini.
After declining steadily through the late '80s, the use of wiretaps in law enforcement is again on the rise. In 1982 (the last full year for which data is available) court-approved taps were up 22 percent, to 578. Preliminary figures show the numbers continued to climb during last year.
Yet wiretaps and bugs are powerful, potentially dangerous tools. The average tap hears 58 people, both guilty and innocent. "Videotapping" with tiny cameras can leave no place to hide.
Are investigators with headphones trampling on constitutional rights?
"Wiretap law is a disaster," claims John Shattuck, national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Over 50 years ago, United States Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes called police wiretapping a "dirty business." Even today, 23 states forbid their police departments from using taps and bugs.
But to officials who use it often, electronic eavesdropping is an invaluable weapon in the war against crime.
Take the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Most of the jump in eavesdropping has been caused by the FBI, in its pursuit of drug rings. Fighting the new wave of such criminal enterprises, says FBI chief William Webster, requires greater use of "sensitive" techniques.
"I feel very comfortable using wiretaps, if guidelines are carefuly supervised," Mr. Webster said in a recent interview. "They have been enormously effective. There's still a kind of carelessness where telephones are concerned."
In Suffolk County, on the eastern half of Long Island, there are apparently a lot of careless criminals.
Suffolk prosecutors installed more wiretaps in 1982-30 of them-than any other US county. According to federal records, about one-third of the 595 conversations these taps intercepted were "incriminating.”
"You know that scene in the movie ‘Annie Hall,' where Woody Allen sneezes and blows $2,000 worth of cocaine all over the floor?" says Dave Freundlich, Suffolk assistant district attorney. "I heard that really happened once."
Often, says Mr. Freundlich, suspects know they are being tapped, and try to disguise the nature of their conversations. But their codes are sometimes less than cryptic.
"One guy will say ‘Bring me a tire. A whole tire,'" says Freundlich, “and then the other will ask, 'Do you want the big tire, or the little one?'
Long Island's ragged shoreline is a haven for drug smugglers, and narcotics suspects account for most of Suffolk's wiretaps.
Without electronic help, claim county prosecutors, their arests would reach no higher than street dealers. With taps, they say, they are getting the top dealers in the county such as Ronald DeConza, convicted in '82 of distributing cocaine.
Assistant district attorney Freundlich insists that Suffolk detectives strictly follow federal wiretap laws. But he admits that the taps are "a big drain on our resources."
Indeed, wiretaps are as expensive as a Mercedes sedan. The average cost of a tap (including both equipment and manpower) was $34,000 in '82, according to the administrative office of the United States Courts.
And that, say critics, is a lot to spend for something they consider both a dangerous intrusion on privacy and unnecessary.
"They should yank them all," grumbles Herman Schwartz, a law professor at the American University.
Wiretaps are powerful vacuums that suck in the words of both criminals and innocent phone users. Between 1977 and 1982, federal taps overheard some 260,000 people-the vast majority of them innocent of any wrongdoing. Officials must turn off their equipment if a chat is not suspicious. But even a few seconds of eavesdropping, say civil liberties advocates, constitutes an invasion of privacy.
"They are inherently intrusive. It's analagous to searching all the apartments in a building, on the grounds that one may have something in it," says the ACLU's Mr. Shattuck.
Wiretaps are also sometimes unconstitutional "fishing expeditions," say civil liberties advocates. Official reason, "Let's put a wire on this nasty guy and get him for something," critics say.
On a less theoretical level, eavesdropping critics argue that the technique is simply ineffective—that prosecutors, after they cast their electronics net, haul in only a few small criminals.
Over the last five years, wiretaps have led to the conviction of an average 900 criminals annually. The majority of these are small-time gamblers and street dealers, says Herman Schwartz of American University.
"If I was a Mafia figure, I would make darn sure never to say anything incriminating over the phone," Shattuck adds.
And judges probably don't watch over wiretaps as closely as they should.
The courts are charged with making sure officers follow that wiretap standards set in the Omnibus Crime Act of 1968.
But "the truth is, on the state level, oversight is difficult to achieve," admits a law-enforcement official who asked not to be named. "How would you like to leaf through hundreds of conversations?"
The technique of wiretapping itself has changed little in the years since the Omnibus Act was passed. “Wiremen" still find the phone box near a suspect's home or apartment, take a short wire with clips on each end, and connect the tapped line with one running back to the prosecutor's office.
Detective then spend eight-hour shifts in bored seclusion, waiting for the tapped phone to ring.
But technology, since 1968, has not been standing still. Officials now use some gadgets the law did not foresee, such as electronic "pen registers," which record numbers dialed, not conversations, allowing police to discover a suspect's contacts. "Videotapping," in which small cameras watch suspects, is a still-small, but particularly Orwellian new development not covered by the law, says one congressional aide.
If your phone is tapped, you can keep your mouth shut. But if there's a camera in your ceiling, there's nothing you can do, short of hiding under the table. A federal district judge, in 1980, called videotapping "extraordinarily intrusive," although he did not throw out camera-obtained evidence.
The use of bugs and phone taps raises difficult questions about both the need for security and rights to privacy.
It is a subject fraught with tensions.
"Electronic surveillance is the only way to get the big guys," sums up Michael Goldsmith, counsel to the New York organized-crime task force, "but its use needs periodic review."
[From the Christian Science Monitor, Apr. 19, 1984]
AUTOMATIC TELLERS, ELECTRONIC MAIL RAISE PRIVACY CONCERNS
(By Peter Grier)
ANNAPOLIS, MD.-I am 50 miles and one state away from home, and in desperate need of money for lunch.