INTERNAUT

It's clear that unclear privacy messages puzzle pols and peers

Shawn P. McCarthy

Can we get a little privacy around here? Maybe, maybe not.

Here are some of the conflicting messages the government has been sending about privacy issues in recent weeks. And no, the messages were not encrypted.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) may have seen his presidential hopes dashed, but he's determined to successfully lead an effort to restructure Internet privacy policies.

McCain and a bipartisan group of legislators want to restrict how Web sites collect and use information without a visitor's specific consent. The Senate Commerce Committee recently said self-policing by Net sites has proved inadequate.

McCain's group is pushing to ensure that citizens can opt in when they want to share info with a site, rather than have to remember to opt out if they don't want to share. Government sites aren't known for gathering consumer-type information, but agency managers should still review the issue to be sure they are OK.

You can find details about the Internet consumer privacy effort at commerce.senate.gov/press/106-226.htm.

On the flip side of the privacy coin, earlier this month a bill proposing $5 million in funding for a government privacy commission never made it out of the House of Representatives.

The bill, introduced by Reps. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.) and Jim Moran (D-Va.), was a so-called fast track bill needing a two-thirds majority approval. It fell 40 votes short. The fact that it had slim majority support means the proposal will likely be back. Funding for privacy matters will continue to face an uphill fight, however.

Technically speaking

The FBI hasn't exactly dropped the other shoe about its controversial Carnivore technology, but it has posted documents on the Web outlining how Carnivore works.

The Carnivore software is installed at the locations of Internet service providers to analyze traffic packets moving around networks. Most often it sifts through e-mail files, looking for messages sent by people who are under investigation. It can also be set to notice words or other content.

Details labeling Carnivore a 'diagnostic tool' appear at www.fbi.gov/programs/carnivore/carnivore.htm.

Opponents of Carnivore complain that the posted details are too sketchy and that the FBI won't share the source code. And who could properly dissect it without that?

Finally, what says privacy more than encryption? The National Institute of Standards and Technology recently named the Rijndael algorithm the winner of a competition to replace the Data Encryption Standard for sensitive but unclassified information.

Termed AES, for Advanced Encryption Standard, Rijndael now becomes the lead candidate as a new Federal Information Processing Standard for encryption.

The question is, could an encrypted AES file sneak past Carnivore and John McCain?

Read more, including details about other encryption methods in the competition, at csrc.nist.gov/encryption/aes/. Information on development of AES can be found at csrc.nist.gov/encryption/aes/round2/r2report.pdf.

Shawn P. McCarthy designs products for a Web search engine provider. E-mail him at smccarthy@lycos-inc.com.

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