Avert those prying eyes

Electronic government is at a critical crossroad — one where the ease and convenience of the Digital Age is quietly eroding personal privacy. From massive and detailed databases to "persistent cookies" on Web sites, federal eyes have an unprecedented view of the public.

The threats to privacy aren't intentional; rather, they are often the unintended consequence of well-meaning programs. Take, for example, the National Directory of New Hires, created in 1996. The Department of Health and Human Services uses the database — which contains the names, addresses, Social Security numbers and quarterly wage reports of all employed Americans — to track down the 6 million or so parents who owe child support.

What has privacy advocates in an uproar is that HHS has started sharing that database — the Education Department, for example, now uses it to find those who default on student loans. Information technology makes it easy to gather, maintain and share this data, and e-government aims to do just that. But critics argue that data collected for one purpose should not be used for another.

Existing regulations prohibit agencies from using personal data in ways not originally intended. But many people simply do not understand the privacy threat and fail to exercise the necessary safeguards. That's been the case with the persistent use of persistent cookies on agency Web sites. Despite repeated directives from the Office of Management and Budget, agency inspectors general and others, agencies still use such cookies — small pieces of software a Web server stores on a user's hard drive to track the user's Web visits — on their sites. Even the redesigned CIO Council Web site, maintained by the General Services Administration, was caught with persistent cookies.

There's no evidence that the government has misused personal data. But any violation of privacy, even unintentional, could spark a backlash that prompts Congress to create stronger measures that, while protecting privacy, go too far in restricting the government's ability to use information.

Let's not go down that road. In e-government, protecting privacy must be part of the process.

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