Attorney General Says Feds Balance Privacy, Security

U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez says his department is very conscious of the sensitive balance between privacy rights and the need to defend the nation from terrorist threats.

SAN JOSE, Calif.—U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez said March 30 that the federal government is sensitive to the need to protect citizens privacy rights under the Constitution even as it uses electronic surveillance to ferret out potential terrorist threats.

"Its not as if the executive branch is operating without some sort of checks and balances," Gonzalez said to reporters during a visit to the Windmill Springs Middle School here.

Gonzalez visited the school Thursday to speak to the 11- to 13-year-old students about their role in upholding intellectual property rights. But the discussion quickly turned to privacy rights during a roundtable discussion with reporters after he met with the schools students and staff.

President George W. Bush has faced criticism in Congress from his admission that he has approved electronic surveillance without court warrants in search of suspected terrorists. The disclosure has also raised concerns that the government might also be intercepting the communications of U.S. citizens at large.

/zimages/1/28571.gifClick here to read about the debate in the U.S. Congress on how to balance privacy and national security in the electronic age.

The government, Gonzalez said, is trying to strike a "proper balance" between its obligation to defend the nation against terrorist attacks and individuals privacy rights.

"We understand that the constitution and our federals laws do protect certain interests and that we have an obligation [to act in a way that is] consistent with the requirements of the Constitution and consistent" with established law, he said.

He noted that the Justice Department is enforcing the laws and policy decisions established by Congress and reviewed by the courts. Since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, there has been a lot of debate on what is the proper balance between protecting privacy rights and protecting the country against future attacks.

"It is a balance I maintain can be met and must be met because we cant sacrifice one with the other," Gonzalez said. "When we strike the balance we do so in good faith based in reading" the laws established by Congress and legal precedents from court decisions, he said.

"Sometimes people disagree" about where to strike the balance between vigilance and privacy rights, he said.

Gonzalez also defended the governments demand that search engine companies turn over what amounted to billions of Web page addresses and millions of search key words in an effort to defend in the courts a federal law that seeks to protect children from exposure to pornography on the Internet.

While most companies complied in one way or another with the demand, Google went to federal court to try to block the inquiry. Google succeeded in winning a federal court ruling that limited the amount of information that the search engine company had to turn over to a total of 50,000 Web site addresses.

/zimages/1/28571.gifClick here to read the details about the federal court decision with which Google has agreed to comply.

The government wanted the information in an effort to prevent the Child Online Protection Act from being overturned in federal court. The courts have struck down successive versions of the law that would require schools and public libraries to maintain filtering technology that would shelter children from exposure to pornography.

Courts have rejected the laws on the grounds that available Web site filtering technology isnt sophisticated enough to tell the difference between pornography and legitimate material that is protected under the First Amendment.

"We were not asking for user information," Gonzalez said. The department requested the information because "in defending the statute we would need to get as much information as we can."

/zimages/1/28571.gifTo read eWEEK Editorial Director Eric Lundquists opinion on the data privacy implications of the Justice Departments demand for anonymous search data, click here.

Google, he noted, was the only search engine company that took the issue to court. The department was happy with the courts decision and will only use the data to defend the Child Online Protection Act.

However, Gonzalez was visiting San Jose, the capital city of Silicon Valley, mainly to enlist the support of school kids in an issue that is important to Californias technology and entertainment industries: defending all kinds of intellectual property from theft and piracy.

The message was that downloading music files or movies without paying for them is no different from shoplifting a pair of blue jeans. "Its stealing ... or its like copying off of someone elses paper in the classroom, Gonzalez said.

He said he hoped that if more elementary and middle school students got the message that its illegal to download music or unauthorized copies of Hollywood films, its possible that fewer young people will do so when they reach high school and college, where the problem has been most pronounced.

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John Pallatto

John Pallatto

John Pallatto has been editor in chief of QuinStreet Inc.'s since October 2012. He has more than 40 years of experience as a professional journalist working at a daily newspaper and...