The Briscoe Syndrome

Wednesday, 1 January 2003, 4:52 PM EST

Watching the TV drama Law & Order, Detective Briscoe confronts the manager of a seedy Times Square hotel, demanding records of the suspect in room 206. The manager, behind a wall of bulletproof glass and wearing a stained T-shirt, tells the detective to "shove it." Briscoe then says something like, "I can get the health department down here to shut you down," and the manager hastily turns over whatever records the detective demands.

This common scene from TV detective shows now has support from real-life. A recent study by CSO magazine found that many Chief Security Officers have or would turn over corporate, business partner and customer records just because a law enforcement or government official requested it, without a subpoena, court order, or any other formal legal process.

Despite all the concerns about expanded law enforcement powers under the USA-PATRIOT Act and the Homeland Security legislation, beyond all the fretting over Carnivore, Magic Lantern, or other technologies, the willingness of corporate agents to simply "turn over" our private personal records represents a much more significant threat to privacy and civil liberty. And while appropriate and reasonable in some circumstances, in many cases the voluntary disclosure of information may represent a violation of corporate privacy policies, which could result in legal liability for the corporations and their officers and directors.

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