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Privacy a Hot Issue on Internet

Finnish court ruling and U.S. legislation fuel the debate

September 08, 1996

Privacy and security are prime issues on the Internet, spurred recently by a court ruling on anonymous e-mail in Finland and by U.S. congressional debate over encryption. The issues come from similar roots but address very different concerns.

The first involves those who want to send electronic mail or post messages to electronic bulletin boards in untraceable anonymity. The second involves high-tech, banking and retail businesses. These businesses and others say they need unfettered access to sophisticated computer encryption or "scrambling" technology in order to protect and encourage American commerce in the global transmission of information.

Certain protections already exist for both individual and business computer users. Online service providers such as America Online Inc., for instance, say that under federal law they cannot reveal information about the true identity of the sender of electronic mail unless a criminal investigation is involved. The protection is roughly equivalent to that provided mail and telephone conversations.

Businesses can protect themselves from electronic intruders through the use of so-called firewalls, barriers between the Internet and a company's computer system. But the Internet, taken alone, is more rough-and-tumble. Until very recently, computer users around the world were able to use a source in Finland to obtain, in a manner of speaking, fake identities. They could then use the fake ID in sending electronic mail or posting messages on the Internet without fear of revealing their identities.

A Finnish court decided that anonymity was not an absolute right and ordered a provider to disclose the identity of a customer involved in a court case, which involved raiding of computer information. The provider complied and then shut down his service, causing a panic among American electronic privacy advocates who feared that the suppression of anonymous e-mail would create a domino effect in the United States. So far there has been no legal challenge to U.S. anonymity providers, whose purposes vary and include protecting the electronic privacy of discussions among rape victims.

Meanwhile, businesses want sophisticated encryption, which is the encoding of information in a manner readable only by the intended recipient. This month, Congress will consider legislation that seeks to liberalize American export controls over encryption technology to the level of what is generally available overseas. The bills also seek to guarantee the rights of all Americans to use encrypted computer communications.

The encryption legislation before Congress is a tough call. Congress has to weigh the concerns of American business against government worries about sophisticated coding technology that could hide criminal or terrorist activities. Lawmakers need to understand the technology at a level deeper than sound bites before they cast a vote.

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