Piracy and privacy

National | Feds collar their first pirate-and privacy advocates search for ways to limit the government's reach

Issue: "Turkey: A terrible toll," Sept. 4, 1999

WWWalk the plank, pirate
Jeffrey Levy was just one of countless pirates on the Internet, distributing music, videos, and software off his website. Until he got busted. Big-time busted. Managers of the University of Oregon's computer network found an unusual amount of data passing through one of its servers and found Mr. Levy was the source. They tipped off the FBI about the 22-year-old senior. The Feds found he collected software and digitized music and lets others surf over to his website and grab it. So the FBI and Oregon State Police raided Mr. Levy's Eugene apartment and seized his equipment. Prosecutors charged him last February with violating the federal NET (No Electronic Theft) Act. Mr. Levy pleaded guilty last week, giving the government its first conviction under the strict 1997 law. The NET Act made it illegal to reproduce or distribute copyrighted works, even for free. If more than 10 works worth over $2,500 are pirated, violations are a felony punishable by up to three years in prison and fines up to $250,000. "This is theft, pure and simple," said Assistant Attorney General James Robinson. Mr. Levy will be sentenced in November. The Software & Information Industry Association says many pirate sites are run by college students. (After all, they often have the free time, the equipment, and the high-speed Internet access to keep one going.) The trade group applauds the Levy conviction since it estimates companies lost $2.9 billion last year in pirated business software alone. It and others regularly track down pirates and file civil suits to protect copyrights. The problem with fighting piracy is that copying software is so easy. And it's hard to catch. Oregon's computer center, for example, looks at volume, not content, of Internet traffic. The issues involved mirror the drug war and no one expects piracy to go away any time soon. Where there are disks, data will be copied-with or without permission. Every click you make, I'll be watching you
When you visit an online store and buy something, what personal details are being collected? This is a hot-button issue the high-tech industry wants the government to stay away from. That's why Intel plans to require sites that carry its ads to tell customers what information is being kept. IBM, Microsoft, and Disney have already made similar threats about privacy statements. Intel will require disclosures from sites that accept the "Intel Inside" swirl and other ads starting January 1. Usually this can be found by clicking on a blue link that says "Privacy Info," "Privacy Policy," or something similar that links to a special page. Yahoo, for example, says it uses information for personalized services, demographic-targeted ads, and promotions. However, "Only Yahoo has access to individuals' accounts," it says. Such statements are not merely public service announcements but shields against regulation that could drive the e-commerce train off the tracks. Even the Federal Trade Commission says new Internet privacy laws are unnecessary. In a statement to Congress, the agency announced that although some sites "still do not understand the importance of consumer privacy," companies are taking enough action themselves. The advertising dollars that flow from high-tech companies is staggering. Intel alone spent $1.3 billion on all advertising last year. To survive, any company must be able to find potential customers and solicit their business. On the Internet, the electronic nature of the medium makes people nervous. Since one man's great deal is another's junk mail, making a sale without scaring the customer away isn't always easy. When everyone's a criminal
Should federal agents be allowed to spy on your computer, find your password, and read your private files? The Justice Department wants Congress to pass a law allowing a new kind of search. Under the Cyberspace Electronic Security Act, drafted by the Justice Department, law enforcement can sneak past access codes and encryption on personal computers. A department memo said this is necessary since scrambled data "is increasingly used as a means to facilitate criminal activity, such as drug trafficking, terrorism, white-collar crime and the distribution of child pornography." Yet critics see password seizing as no different from the FBI sneaking into someone's house and cracking the safe. After all, a law intended to get tough on crime could leave investigators digging through the e-mail and financial records of innocent citizens. "They have taken the cyberspace issue and are using it as justification for invading the home," James Dempsey, an attorney for the Center for Democracy and Technology, told The Washington Post. Theoretically, since no one can tell which scrambled messages are stock trades and which are bomb plots without cracking them open, anyone is a potential criminal. The Clinton administration proposal would allow the Feds to get a warrant from a judge to go snooping. This court permission is similar to the wiretap warrants that are regularly rubber-stamped by magistrates. The problem is that exactly the same technology used to hide crack dealers, embezzlers, and mad bombers also protects a normal citizen's bank statements, credit-card bills, and store transactions. The encryption software in Microsoft Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator is strong enough to push the toughest code-cracking computers to the brink. What once was called military security is now used to protect adolescent love notes.

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