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Sunday, December 19, 2004

It's No "Carnivore," But Still... 

The New York Attorney General is looking into the possibility that the ACLU has violated its own members' privacy rights:
The American Civil Liberties Union is using sophisticated technology to collect a wide variety of information about its members and donors in a fund-raising effort that has ignited a bitter debate over its leaders' commitment to privacy rights.

Some board members say the extensive data collection makes a mockery of the organization's frequent criticism of banks, corporations and government agencies for their practice of accumulating data on people for marketing and other purposes.

Daniel S. Lowman, vice president for analytical services at Grenzebach Glier & Associates, the data firm hired by the A.C.L.U., said the software the organization is using, Prospect Explorer, combs a broad range of publicly available data to compile a file with information like an individual's wealth, holdings in public corporations, other assets and philanthropic interests.

The issue has attracted the attention of the New York attorney general, who is looking into whether the group violated its promises to protect the privacy of its donors and members.

"It is part of the A.C.L.U.'s mandate, part of its mission, to protect consumer privacy," said Wendy Kaminer, a writer and A.C.L.U. board member. "It goes against A.C.L.U. values to engage in data-mining on people without informing them. It's not illegal, but it is a violation of our values. It is hypocrisy."

The organization has been shaken by infighting since May, when the board learned that Anthony D. Romero, its executive director, had registered the A.C.L.U. for a federal charity drive that required it to certify that it would not knowingly employ people whose names were on government terrorism watch lists.

A day after The New York Times disclosed its participation in late July, the organization withdrew from the charity drive and has since filed a lawsuit with other charities to contest the watch list requirement.

The group's new data collection practices were implemented without the board's approval or knowledge, and were in violation of the A.C.L.U.'s privacy policy at the time, said Michael Meyers, vice president of the organization and a frequent and strident internal critic. Mr. Meyers said he learned about the new research by accident Nov. 7 in a meeting of the committee that is organizing the group's Biennial Conference in July.
Either this is the first stage in a brilliant counter-intuitive media strategy, or somebody just handed Rush Limbaugh enough fodder for a year's worth of unfunny jokes. I'd also like to wonder out loud how many organizations on the right have someone identifiable to the media as a "frequent and strident internal critic."

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