Experts debate e-threats to privacy, security

Thursday, March 16, 2000

J. Robert Port...
J. Robert Port

ARLINGTON, Va. — Does public information change and become more dangerous when it goes online? That was the first panel debate at today’s National Freedom of Information Day conference at The Freedom Forum.

J. Robert Port, a senior computer-assisted reporting editor for, agreed with the keynote speaker, Jane Kirtley of the University of Minnesota, that the government was running scared. He joined other panelists in discussing “Electronic Access: Are the Threats to Privacy and Security Too Great?”

“There is a fear that comes from ignorance in handing something over to the Internet,” he said. For example, “no newspaper is going to publish 1,600 financial disclosures,” even if they are free to public access, he said. “But the Internet can do it.” This information is now more easily accessible on the Web, causing the government to reconsider its security.

Ari Schwartz, policy analyst at the Center for Democracy and Technology, said security from public information threatens our First Amendment rights. “What good does it do to make something private when it was once public? If we do, the Internet isn’t doing us any good, whatsoever. Public information should be public,” he said.

Ari Schwartz...
Ari Schwartz

But Steven Chabinsky, a lawyer with the Federal Bureau of Investigation,
disagreed. He said all Web-based information should be evaluated as to
its appropriateness and usefulness to certain groups. “Information going
to [certain communities] is now public to the whole world. I’m not sure
it shouldn’t be limited,” he said.

Chabinsky said we live in a different world now, because the Internet includes every community. “The right that we have is to a balance of disclosure.”

Schwartz agreed that an appropriate balance should be struck, but he said there was a tendency to “shut off access altogether,” which was the government’s “easy way out” of its uncomfortable situation.

Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said Chabinsky’s point “goes against everything I’ve ever believed. The idea that information should only go to discreet communities — I just don’t buy that.”

Lucy Dalglish...
Lucy Dalglish

She said the government has begun to form groups on privacy issues in various industries. For example, Congress in February created a new task force and caucus to address medical privacy issues, which will propose rules that conflict with free-speech rights.

Journalists typically are permitted to inquire about the medical status of patients in a hospital, Dalglish said, but under the task force’s proposed rules, the hospital would not even be able to even confirm that the patient is there. “It’s critical for the public to understandtragedies and disasters,” she said.

“Some sinister medical practices in the past have been uncovered by journalists,” Dalglish said. If the new privacy laws are enacted, peoples’ lives may be endangered.
Chabinsky said the FBI was solely concerned with public safety. “If disclosure [promotes] safety, then so be it.”