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Tech Industry

Panel wrestles with privacy issues

In what is becoming a classic debate of the electronic age, panelists at an e-government show discuss the difficult balance between privacy and security.

WASHINGTON--In what is becoming a classic debate of the electronic age, panelists at an e-government show here discussed the difficult balance between privacy and security, particularly surrounding the issue of national ID cards.

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani had given the card tacit approval in his keynote speech earlier Wednesday at the E-Gov 2002 conference here. The topic has been hotly debated by privacy advocates and security experts. Today's panel, focusing on the future of e-government, was no exception.

"We all benefit from 'practical obscurity,'" said Jay Stanley, who runs the technology and liberty project at the American Civil Liberties Union. While there is much personal data available on each of us, it's difficult to pull that information together. But as more and more data is moved onto computers and the Internet, pulling the information together gets easier.

But older technologies pose their own threats, said Mark Forman, associate director of information technology and e-government for the Office of Management and Budget.

"When I joined the government I probably filled out 15 different forms, which I'm sure were entered by 15 different clerks," Forman said. "Is my privacy safer with one form or 15?"

Not surprisingly, panelist Greg Papadopoulos, chief technology officer at Sun Microsystems, said the solution may lie in technology using predefined standards for identifying information. Data wouldn't need to be gathered in a single place--an issue of concern to privacy advocates--but it would still be possible to authenticate identifying information.

The authentication issue seemed to concern attendees, one of whom questioned why people should be allowed on to Web sites or computer systems without stating who they are, when "you would never let someone into your home if they wouldn't say who they were."

Panelists also expressed concerns that other forms of ID, including drivers licenses and social security numbers, will turn into national ID cards, even if that was not their initial role.

Setting up national standards and agreeing to share data between motor vehicle bureaus does not equal the creation of a national ID, said Linda Lewis of the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators.

There is a difference between being anonymous and protecting privacy, she said. "We need to know who you are, and that you are who you say you are."