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TUESDAY, JANUARY 3, 2006
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EDITORIAL

NSA's nefarious cookies not the same as Grandma's

The National Security Agency's admission last week that its Internet site has been placing permanent files on visitors' computers that can track their Web-surfing activity is just another example of the spy agency's disregard for the law and privacy.

Certainly, the "persistent cookies" that NSA dropped on unsuspecting Web surfers — files that won't expire for 30 years and allow NSA to track surfing activity — are less nefarious than the domestic eavesdropping on e-mails and telephone calls that the agency and President Bush recently admitted and continue to defend.

Nonetheless, the use of the cookies is illegal. A 2003 memo from the White House's Office of Management and Budget specifically prohibits federal agencies from using persistent cookies — those that aren't deleted when the Web browser is closed — unless there is a "compelling need." And then, a senior official must sign off on their use and the agency that uses them must detail their use in its privacy policy.

NSA used the cookies even though they are prohibited. And while most law-abiding Americans have nothing to fear about the government tracking their Internet browsing, the government's illegal use of domestic spying carries this danger: It is all too easy for the government to abuse.

Like J. Edgar Hoover's secret personal files during his tenure at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the information the government can obtain is just too tempting. Eventually, the government will establish lists of "undesirables." Is it too far-fetched to believe they could end up in a prison in Guantanamo, Cuba, without charges, representation or a trial?

President Bush defended the use of unwarranted domestic wiretaps Sunday by saying, "If someone from al-Qaida is calling you, we'd like to know why."

If the government needs such information, it should get it approved by the court established specifically for that purpose.

And it should keep its cookies to itself.

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