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3/16/93 Secret Service Held Guilty Of Violating Computer Privacy

By Bob Ortega

A federal court in Austin, Texas, ruled that the U.S.  Secret Service

violated privacy laws in seizing an electronic bulletin board, electronic mail and computer records from a computer games maker three years ago, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Federal Judge Sam Sparks also ruled that the Secret Service, contrary to

government denials, had read, disclosed and erased messages on the bulletin board it seized, in violation of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.

"Though the ruling is not as clear as we'd have liked, it's the first

opinion I know of that holds that electronic communications on a bulletin board are protected" by the federal Privacy Protection Act, said Peter Kennedy, attorney for Steve Jackson Games of Austin, the plaintiff in the case. Justice Department attorneys couldn't immediately be reached for comment.

The case, which provoked fierce debate over how widely the government can

cast its net in combating computer crime, led to the founding of a computer-user's rights group, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which sponsored the suit against the government. Yesterday, the foundation hailed the verdict. "This case should send a message to law-enforcement groups everywhere that they can't ignore the rights of those who communicate by computer," said Mike Godwin, the foundation's counsel.

In March 1990, the Secret Service was tracking a "911 program" that agents

believed computer hackers had stolen from BellSouth. Agents, saying they suspected that an employee of Steve Jackson's was involved, raided the company under a warrant issued by the local U.S. Magistrate. They seized computer equipment, an electronic bulletin board, and files that contained a computer game the company had been about to publish.

The Service held onto the property for months, and destroyed some of the

files and electronic messages.

In his opinion, Judge Sparks said there was never any basis for suspicion

that the company or its owner, Steve Jackson, had broken any laws; and that if agents hadn't been so "sloppy" in their investigation, they would have realized that the company was a legitimate publisher, entitled to the protection of the Privacy Protection Act. That act shields files and work records of newspapers, broadcasters and publishers from government search or seizure.

Judge Sparks did support the Secret Service's contention, on a separate

count, that despite seizing and reading electronic messages on the bulletin board, it hadn't "intercepted" them under the meaning of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.

He awarded Jackson, his company, and three bulletin board users a total of

about $55,000, plus attorney's fees.

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