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10/25/00- Updated 08:44 AM ET


Privacy promises crumble

With only months left, the Clinton/Gore administration is sure to go down in history as the most techno-savvy of the 20th century. But along the way it has alternately ignored and trampled privacy rights.

Among the latest examples:

Last week, Congress' non-partisan General Accounting Office released an analysis of new federal privacy rules banning the use of "cookies" -- computer codes that track Web surfers from site to site across the Net. The GAO found that one in six federal sites still allow them. Offenders include the Postal Service, the Forest Service and the Small Business Administration.

Earlier this month, the commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service assured Republican congressional leaders that the IRS Web site doesn't keep or solicit any "confidential taxpayer information." His assurances about taxpayer privacy turn out to be misleading. The site solicits tax-law questions and suggests visitors provide detailed information, including their e-mail addresses.

Also in October, an Internet privacy group called Privacilla found that the White House's own Web site violates rules to protect children's privacy: collecting personally identifiable information about children without getting verifiable parental consent.

In September, the GAO reported federal agencies' progress a year after the administration implemented its Internet privacy policies. Among other problems, it found that more than 40% of 101 Web pages that collect sensitive information such as credit card numbers didn't have the required privacy disclosure.

This flood of privacy snafus wouldn't be such a big deal if it didn't come in the wake of the administration's dismal handling of privacy concerns about Carnivore, the FBI's secret program for snooping through e-mail. Instead of handling concerns openly, the Department of Justice has chosen to stonewall, blocking full release of government documents and hiring an outside group packed with government insiders to perform a softball "independent review." If it can't handle the small stuff, it's no surprise that the Clinton administration fumbles big privacy concerns such as Carnivore.

On Tuesday, the White House greeted the latest round of privacy criticism with limp promises for a December update. That's a familiar response. The administration has made privacy promises before without following through. Considering its obtuse handling of Carnivore, it's easy to conclude that the promises don't mean anything this time either.

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