||Is Your Television Watching
Could the federal government find out what you're watching on TV?
Even if you're not the subject of a criminal investigation?
If you're a satellite TV or TiVo owner, the answer is yes, according
to legal experts and industry officials.
Under the USA Patriot Act, passed a month after the 9/11 terrorist
attack, the feds can force a noncable TV operator to disclose every
show you have watched. The government just has to say that the request
is related to a terrorism investigation, said Jay Stanley, a technology
expert for the American Civil Liberties Union.
Under Section 215 of the Act, you don't even have to be the target
of the investigation. Plus, your TV provider is prohibited from
informing you that the feds have requested your personal information.
"The language is very broad," Mr. Stanley said. "It
allows the FBI to force a company to turn over the records of their
customers. They don't even need a reasonable suspicion of criminal
David Sobel, general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information
Center, a Washington think tank, said the Cable Act of 1984 gives
cable operators greater protection against the Patriot Act. Cable
companies do not have to release an individual's records unless
the feds show that the person is the target of a criminal investigation.
Even then, the individual must be notified of the request, which
he can then challenge in court.
"The Patriot Act does not override the Cable Act," Mr.
You couldn't blame the satellite TV industry for feeling a little
vulnerable these days. DirecTV, for instance, collects a large amount
of individual data, such as program package orders, pay-per-view
orders and even online purchases via the DirecTV-Wink interactive
shopping service. The Justice Department could ask DirecTV to disclose
whether you subscribe to Playboy or purchased Viagra if it would
help an investigation.
But Andy Wright, president of the Satellite Broadcasting Communications
Association, the industry's trade group, said he does not believe
the feds will make frivolous requests.
"They still have to issue a subpoena to get the data,"
he said. "Even in today's environment, I can't imagine a judge
would approve a subpoena that is not warranted."
However, the ACLU's Mr. Stanley said the Patriot Act is different
because the government can get the order from the special Foreign
Intelligence Surveillance Act court rather than a judicial court.
"It's not like a subpoena. The standards are much weaker than
[in] a criminal case," Mr. Stanley said.
But Mr. Wright contended that satellite TV viewers should not be
concerned that they will be subjected to improper searches. The
satellite chief added he's not sure the federal government needs
to give dish owners the same protection as cable viewers.
"I would have to study that more before supporting that,"
Mr. Wright said.
The Patriot Act, which Attorney General John Ashcroft said is crucial
to fighting terrorism in the United States, has scared many civil
libertarians. However, the possibility that the feds could use the
law to learn about your viewing habits has been overlooked until
The invasion of privacy might be well intentioned and perhaps even
necessary. However, there's also the danger that an overzealous
team of agents will abuse the law. In the spirit of the early patriots,
all Americans need to remain vigilant.#
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