Private businesses such as phone companies, banks and retail stores are facing more requests from law enforcement agencies for information about their customers, forcing many to deploy staff and upgrade equipment to meet the demand.
The subpoenas and court orders, many stemming from new government powers to search for terrorists, have alarmed civil rights groups and privacy advocates, who say that the government is secretly snooping on innocent citizens.
“It's very scary,” said Oren Teicher, chief operating officer of the American Booksellers Association, a nonprofit group that represents 2,000 businesses.
Law enforcement subpoenas to bookstores have increased in recent years, including requests for titles of books purchased by customers, he said.
The association is lobbying Congress to repeal a portion of the Patriot Act that gives law enforcement broader authority to obtain such subpoenas through a secret court. Under the law, it is illegal for companies to disclose information about the requests, making the problem difficult to quantify, Teicher said. But it is enough to cause alarm in the bookselling community, he added.
“Not only is it secret, but the library or the bookstore isn't even allowed to talk about it … the whole thing seems to us to be so patently unconstitutional,” he said.
The government requests for information have led some private companies to spend a lot of money to upgrade their software to make it easier to pull customer data and conduct wiretaps. Businesses are also being advised to rewrite customer privacy agreements to avoid liability and to keep data in their systems longer in order to facilitate access.
Last year, BellSouth received more than 32,000 subpoenas for customer information, about half of those from law enforcement. In addition, the telecommunications giant received 636 court orders, mostly from the government, including requests for wiretaps.
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Privacy advocates are worried about a class of subpoenas designed for emergency situations that do not require prior judicial approval. Because the subpoenas involve only the company and law enforcement officials and the company is not allowed to discuss them, they could go completely unnoticed, said Lee Tien, a senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit technology watchdog organization.
“These kind of loopholes are easily manipulated. It could happen once a day. It could happen a hundred times a day, but no one in the public is going to know about it,” he said.
The American Civil Liberties Union also is worried.
“All of these [subpoenas] are essentially short-circuiting the process of judicial review,” said Marv Johnson, ACLU legislative counsel. The group has sued, challenging the constitutionality of the subpoena provision.
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Most companies, however, will not complain about the burden of sharing information with the government for fear of hurting their public image by appearing unpatriotic, said Larry Ponemon who heads the Ponemon Institute, an information management think tank in Tucson, Ariz.