Uncle Sam's 'cookie' is watching you

The Scripps Howard News Service revealed last month that the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) was planting Internet surveillance codes, called "cookies," in the computers of people who visited their drug-education Web sites. People searching the Internet for drug-related information are steered to these Web sites by banner ads, paid for with tax dollars, appearing whenever certain keywords are used in searches.

Internet privacy advocates, upon learning of the cookie practice - which the White House quickly clarified as a violation of its own privacy policies - were outraged. But the problems with this practice are much worse.

An Internet cookie is a computer instruction that reports back to the computer system that placed it information about the identity and Internet activities of the computer that has had the cookie implanted. Logging on to a Web site, or even viewing an online ad, can load a cookie onto a computer hard drive. The information tracked can include one's e-mail address, Internet service provider, the unique identifier of a person's computer, the types of computer software used, and the Internet searches a person conducts. Some of this data can be analyzed to indicate where a computer user lives or works.

During the 1980s, I worked for Congress and helped write the 1988 legislation creating the ONDCP. The goal was to improve the coordination of federal antidrug efforts - and ONDCP overwhelmingly was given a law-enforcement mission. Each year, it directs hundreds of millions of dollars toward intelligence gathering and law enforcement through its law-enforcement task forces that blanket the nation.

For the drug czar's office to place secret surveillance codes into the computers of Americans is dangerous and counter-productive for three reasons:

*Surveillance of this kind by a federal law-enforcement agency is probably unlawful and unconstitutional. Congress hasn't authorized the White House to plant surveillance technology in Americans' computers. Indeed, the Fourth Amendment guarantees we are secure in our "persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches," and that searches are only authorized by judges' warrants for probable cause specifically describing the place to be searched.

It's clear our computer files are "effects," which are protected. Millions of people use the Internet daily to contact their banks, pay bills, monitor investments, and make the most private, sensitive financial transactions. Our use of the Internet is like going to a file cabinet for our private papers. Millions of people keep their personal files and correspondence in computers maintained by Internet service providers like AOL. The files are remote from home or office and are only accessed by the Internet, but potentially tracked by the ONDCP cookie.

ONDCP is actually financing research on how to do more surveillance using the Internet and databases built on Web traffic.

*This practice threatens political speech and debate. Americans are questioning national drug policy. Two governors - Gary Johnson (R) of New Mexico and Jesse Ventura (Reform) of Minnesota - suggest some kind of legalization and regulation of drugs and drug use may be better strategies than our current ineffective prohibition approach. Citizens naturally turn to Internet search engines and go to government Web sites to learn more about these important issues. They use the Internet like their private library, calling up "bookmarked" or favorite Web sites like they take books from a shelf.

When the government conducts clandestine surveillance of people looking for information about drug issues, it's intimidating. It dangerously chills the opportunity for free, open debate, which is fundamental to democracy and the making of sound public policy.

*As a matter of drug policy, this is counter-productive. People who looking for information about "addiction," "cocaine," "marijuana," etc. are often looking for help. Many of the people we most need to educate about drug dangers are drug users, their family members, and friends. When the public worries that by seeking information about drug addiction, private information is captured secretly, we inevitably discourage those who most need this potentially life-saving information.

The ONDCP has promised to terminate the practice. But, it is disturbing evidence that the drug czar and his staff don't have a clear idea of the appropriate limits on their powers. This was also seen earlier this year when ONDCP's clandestine practice of offering "advertising credits" to TV networks and news magazines in exchange for censoring scripts or running favorable stories was revealed. It doesn't seem to appreciate the appropriate relation between the government of a democracy and the people who constitute that democracy.

While the cookie episode is a reminder of the growing loss of privacy in the Information Age, it's also yet another warning of how antidrug-establishment zealotry continues to threaten law-abiding citizens by curtailing their freedoms. Millions of citizens are routinely tested for drugs they never use. Now they're under surveillance for using drug words in Internet searches.

*Eric E. Sterling, president of the nonprofit Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, from 1979 to 1989, was counsel to the House Judiciary Committee where he was principally responsible for antidrug legislation.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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