'Red Means Big Brother's in Charge'

Watchdog Color-Codes Government Infringements on Privacy

Civil liberties advocates warn of the serious consequences inaccurate crime information can have—and in actual cases has had—for innocent people, jeopardizing jobs, finances, and constitutional rights. EPIC's online petition to restore data standards cites one instance in which "a Los Angeles man was arrested five times, three at gun point, due to an error in the NCIC." An average of 2.8 million NCIC transactions are processed each day, according to EPIC.

Despite its laundry list of privacy concerns, EPIC restrained itself in rating the government last week. Said Rotenberg, "The reasons we didn't want to set the level higher than yellow is, things could get a lot worse."

Below yellow is blue, or "guarded," or, said Rotenberg, "the pre-Patriot Act level." Mildest on the threat index is green for "low," which EPIC envisions not just as the absence of government intrusion but the presence of affirmative individual protections, such as technology that ensures online privacy and legislation that guarantees the confidentiality of personal information.

Above yellow is a "high" threat orange. Presumably, yellow would get redder if some of the Bush administration's current efforts bore fruit, such as expanding the DNA database and creating the so-called Patriot Act II to expand surveillance powers.

EPIC hopes other online watchdogs will feature its privacy alert chart, downloadable from its Web site. Individual civil liberties enthusiasts can place the chart on their desktops and regularly reload it to track changes over time, Rotenberg said, although some basic HTML knowledge is required.

But the goal is not to promote individual paranoias. Said Rotenberg, concerned citizens ought to "organize and act politically." There is nothing high-tech about his prescription for protecting the right to privacy: "Contact your Congress member and express your opinion."

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