Information technology and privacy

Is there a new culprit abroad in America - invading privacy and chipping away at individual rights? Some observers of the legal scene insist there is - the computer.

* George Trubow, a professor at John Marshall Law School and a specialist in legal questions relating to the exchange of information, insists that the computer could strip away privacy and other freedoms.

* John Shattuck, national legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union, warns that ''law (is) being greatly outpaced by technology,'' which, in turn, is being ''driven by unregulated forces.''

* David Burnham, national correspondent of the New York Times and author of ''The Rise of the Computer State,'' believes personal liberty is on the line.

Such observers recommend tighter control over the kinds of intrusion the computer has facilitated; greater public awareness of the extent and dangers of electronic invasion of privacy; and an update of laws to restrain electronic snooping.

What it all boils down to is not straitjacketing technology but defining ethical standards for the people who use the technology. Computers aren't in themselves either moral or immoral. Ethical judgments are made by human beings.

This technology area has already become a springboard for litigation. And it seems likely that conflicts over use of electronic data will arise more frequently in the next few years, as computers become even more commonplace in government agencies, businesses, and homes.

Robert E. Lee Walker, vice-president and general counsel of Continental Illinois National Bank, predicts a nationwide explosion of computer recordkeeping within the next five years. But Mr. Walker, one of the nation's top corporate specialists in legal questions relating to technology and privacy, is not alarmed. He says there are ''strong, workable sinews'' which protect information even in the hands of third parties; he believes people generally act in good faith and that enough laws and checks already exist to hold abuse to a minimum.

It's reassuring that someone as knowledgeable as Walker is confident that Big Brother and big business won't control our lives after 1984. But, as the Trubows , Shattucks, and Burnhams warn, the potential for abuse is real, and the truism is still valid that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.

To be sure, government authorities will continue to emphasize, as they have in the past, the benefits of ''computer matching,'' in which one computer system compares data with another. This can be a vital tool in the fight against crime and fraud. For instance, the system used by the Internal Revenue Service to pinpoint tax cheaters is said to save the government millions of dollars each year. And use of the computer as a tool for uncovering welfare fraud is also reputed to save a barrel of public money.

Unquestionably computers also help banks and businesses check a customer's credit rating or process a loan application more efficiently than ever before.

These are the sunny scenarios. Unfortunately, there are also shadowy stories.

Among them, the one about what happened when Massachusetts used a computer to check the income and purchase records of people on the welfare and child-support rolls. The state then dropped names where the comparison suggested abuse, without even giving the people involved a hearing. Ultimately it was determined that in a number of cases the data were wrong and that in others what appeared to be fraud really wasn't.

Then there was the practice used for a time by police in Los Angeles County, who based their arrests on a percentage of matched characteristics between a computer-generated profile and a given suspect. Armed with the proper proportion of match-ups - it had to be at least 61 percent - officers reportedly were not deterred by such other discrepancies as height or skin color. One black, for instance, was apprehended because he met the mandated percentage of the profile criteria, even though the profile also described the criminal as white.

In other areas, there are well-documented cases of loans being denied and apartment rentals being barred because of erroneous credit profiles. There are also instances in which individuals have been placed under extended government surveillance because of fallacious data.

Legal observers point out that, generally, any person has the right to request access to government or business records about himself or herself. Some have used state or federal freedom-of-information laws to do so. But many citizens are unaware of this right, and others feel that even a request for such data might get them into trouble.

Ultimately, to ensure adequate protection for individual privacy, existing laws need to be better enforced, and old legislation needs to be brought into line with the new technological threats. For example, the ban on warrantless wiretapping could be broadened to include official intrusion into private computer data. And the privacy statutes that protect postal deliveries could be extended to cover electronic mail.

As Mr. Shattuck of the Civil Liberties Union noted, law has been outpaced by technology. That gap must be closed - and the sooner the better.

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