Big Brother's data-based wings have been singed - but not clipped. The Electronic Communications Privacy Act, signed recently by President Reagan, places for the first time strict limits on government and other intrusions of individual privacy by technological means.
Among other things, this law makes it illegal to eavesdrop on electronic mail, computer-to-computer data transmissions, private video conferences, and cellular car phones.
But strong advocates of privacy, such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), still see technology outpacing regulation in many areas - leaving individual citizens vulnerable to possible limits on their personal freedoms.
These rights groups continuallly lobby for new laws and rules. But restrictions on computer matching - sharing computer files containing personal data, such as credit or health information - are still minimal, if they exist at all.
Futher, an increasing number of questions relating to privacy invasions are being raised about use of computers to monitor the efficiency and productivity of workers.
Congress recently stopped just short of passing a computer crime bill that would have penalized people convicted of stealing or maliciously damaging information in computers that belong to the federal government, securities brokers, or federally insured financial institutions.
Most states, however, already have laws in place that provide punishment for computer-related crimes. Texas, for example, makes it a misdemeanor to spuriously gain access to a computer. If a system is caused to malfunction or a program is altered or damaged and the loss exceeds $2,500, the intruder may be charged with a felony.
Still, the fast-paced development of technology, if unregulated, continues to bode ill for the privacy and personal liberties of millions of Americans. From Massachusetts to California, computer errors and extraneous matching of personal information have resulted in false arrests, lost jobs, denial of medicaid and welfare benefits, and revoked drivers' licenses, among other things.
Privacy laws were written in the late 1960s, before the current explo sion in data processing and communications technology. Thus, while wiretapping of traditional telephones and warrantless interception of mail have long been illegal, the same protections have up to now not been keyed to products of the new technology.
Controversy over technology and its use boils down to which should be given preference: the right of government and the private sector to use computers to detect and curb crime or to increase worker productivity, or constitutional protections for people from intrusions on their privacy.
The Justice Department holds that ``legal'' eavesdropping and computer matching of criminal records, for example, are essential to a crackdown on organized crime and violence. And it has opposed certain restrictions - such as special warrant requirements - that might hamper its operations. Industry's argument
At the same time, industry argues that computer surveillance of workers is an important tool toward greater productivity - and if done in an enlightened manner will also preserve morale and personal freedom.
It was this balance - between public and business interests and individual rights - that Rep. Robert Kastenmeier (D) of Wisconsin stressed in shepherding the newly passed Electronic Communications Privacy Act through the House of Representatives.
Congressman Kastenmeier calls the law ``landmark legislation ... that fairly balances the privacy rights of citizens with the legitimate law enforcement needs of government.''
Uncharacteristically, the privacy act was able to muster support from both industry and individual rights groups.
Jerry Berman, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's project on technology and privacy and ACLU's chief legislative counsel, calls the legislation a ``significant advancement of privacy rights of citizens in the age of new communications technology.''
Mr. Berman says he would like to see similar protections in areas like workplace technology and computer matching. Balancing the rights
The ACLU official says that the proper approach is to ``strike a balance'' between the employers' rights to the new technology and increased productivity and workers' rights to privacy and due process in the workplace.
But Berman and other civil liberties advocates are concerned that such electronic surveillance on the job could be used to intimidate workers into unreasonable speedups and create unhealthy tensions among colleagues.
Alan F. Westin, a Columbia University professor of law and government and a specialist in worker productivity and privacy, says, however, that his studies indicate that many employees actually react positively to computer monitoring ``where an atmosphere of trust and an assurance of privacy'' is created by management.
``Employees accept the idea that records [on their performance and productivity] can be kept as long as they are convinced that they [the records] will be objective and the employer will be fair,'' Professor Westin says.
Government agencies often use computer matching to search for possible fraud, waste, and abuse by collecting data on people in several electronic record systems. The ACLU holds that information on an individual should not be collected for one purpose and used for another without notifying the person and giving him or her the opportunity to explain.
A recent report by the Office of Technology Assistance (OTA), the research arm of Congress, points out that such government computer matching has tripled over the past five years and now involves about 2 billion different records. And the OTA confirms privacy advocates' concerns that this ``information is sometimes used for purposes other than those for which it was originally collected, a result discouraged by the Privacy Act [of 1974].''
John Shattuck, Harvard University vice-president for government, community, and national affairs, and a longtime civil liberties lawyer, calls computer-matching a ``privacy invasion.'' Abuses of computer matching
He points out that countless abuses have occurred in these computerized general searches of personal data in the files of welfare and medicaid recipients, draft-age taxpayers, veterans, federal workers, and people entitled to supplementary social security income.
The OTA suggests that Congress should consider establishing a ``new oversight or ombudsman mechanism such as a Data Protection Board or Privacy Commission'' to grapple with information privacy issues.
It also weighs the possibility of forming a national study commission to examine the broad social, economic, and political implications of information policy.
Professor Westin says that no new principles as to due process and privacy are needed to deal with current applications. But he adds that public education could help explain the potential threats to privacy that are arising with technology. It could also generate political support for citizen participation.
Last of three articles. Previous installments ran Dec. 3 and 4.