Tuesday, August 4, 2009

It’s always important to read the fine print. Car dealers were reminded of that rule when logging onto the government’s “cash for clunkers” Web page. In return for information about the Car Allowance Rebate System, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) required that dealers surrender all privacy on their private computer networks.

NHTSA’s warning said: “When logged on to the CARS system, your computer is considered a Federal computer system and is the property of the U.S. Government. Any or all uses of this system and all files on this system may be intercepted, monitored, recorded, copied, audited, inspected and disclosed to authorized CARS, [Department of Transportation] and law enforcement personnel, as well as authorized officials of other agencies, both domestic and foreign.”

When asked if similarly intrusive warnings were posted in the past, NHTSA spokesman Debbie Boykin told us: “I haven’t heard of that happening before at all.” It was only at the close of business yesterday that Sasha Johnson, press secretary for the Department of Transportation, informed us that the warning had been replaced with a note saying, “We are working to revise the language.” Despite repeated requests, no explanation was ever offered for why the original warning was used or why it was taken down.

We’re curious why civil rights advocates aren’t up in arms over this invasion of privacy. The George W. Bush administration was pilloried because the National Security Agency was monitoring phone calls from foreigners even though the intercepts involved national security, not domestic law enforcement. In this clunkers deal, the government was claiming access to files on private computers in return for being part of the $1 billion (and counting) program to get cash for trading in an old car for a voucher to buy a new one.

The American Civil Liberties Union showed no interest in investigating the invasion of privacy and would only comment to us that “it is hard to believe that [the Obama administration] would do something like this.” Big Brother can get away with a lot when the watch dogs aren’t watching what’s going on.

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