INTERNAUT

Privacy is getting very public these days

Shawn P. McCarthy

Privacy, privacy, privacy. The issue won't go away in the government, even though federal Web sites now have official privacy statements posted.

Several policy groups, including the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington, are calling on President Bush to appoint a chief privacy counselor. See details at www.cdt.org/privacy.

The center's concern is the lack of an enforced standard for government site privacy and user tracking. A critical Senate audit, made public last month by Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), found fault with agency use of cookies, regardless of what the cookies do. Thompson outlined what he considers blatant privacy shortcomings on some federal sites.

Chances are that Bush will appoint someone to oversee privacy matters, even if it's only an assistant within the Office of Management and Budget. I expect some sweeping edicts.

Private eye versus government spy: If you need information about a private citizen but worry that your agency might get bad publicity for snooping, do what several law enforcement agencies have done. Open an account at ChoicePoint Asset Co. of Atlanta, at www.choicepointinc.com.

ChoicePoint combs through data from credit bureaus, marketing databases and the government's own databases, then repackages the data to spot trends or check up on individuals.

Law enforcers have found it a way to get around the Privacy Act of 1974, which says government agencies can collect and maintain only enough data about an individual to do their jobs. If someone else maintains the data, does the rule still apply? See ChoicePoint's General Services Administration contract, GS-22F-9627D.

If you don't find what you want at ChoicePoint, try its affiliates, World Market Watch Inc. of Shepherdstown, W.Va., at www.1jump.com/content/0-72063.html, or DBT Online Inc. of Boca Raton, Fla., at www.datacase.com. Outside the ChoicePoint group, try AbsoluteBackgrounds.com of Roseville, Calif., at www.absolutebackgrounds.com.

Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the Web, is more interested in back-room tinkering than in seeking the limelight. It's always good to know what he's been tinkering with lately.

Berners-Lee is at work with James Hendler and Ora Lassila on something called the Semantic Web. Most of today's Web pages are designed for humans to read, but not for computers to react to or interpret. The Semantic Web effort could change that. Semantic Web pages are constructed so that intelligent agents can tag and locate relevant data.

The Extensible Markup Language and Resource Description Framework are two important pieces of the puzzle. XML tags data in special ways. RDF integrates metadata such as site maps, search engine collections and stream channel definitions.

A third piece of the puzzle is an ontology'a document that formally defines the relationships. With all the pieces in place, humans wouldn't have to surf the Web anymore. They could dispatch intelligent agents to check government databases for specific filings, book dentist appointments and so on.

If the Semantic Web takes off, federal sites now struggling to change to XML tagging will have to retag and restructure data. Details of the project appear at www.w3.org/2001/sw. To read more about ontology, visit www.semanticweb.org/knowmarkup.html.

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

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