EBay’s director of law enforcement and compliance, Joseph Sullivan, gave a talk last winter which is only now getting any attention. In it, he offered law enforcement officials open access to EBay customer information – without regard for the legal procedures that you might have believed were in place to protect you from civil rights abuses by the state. Here’s an article from The Nation on Mr. Sullivan’s comments.

Sullivan said, “If you are a law-enforcement officer, all you have to do is send us a fax with a request for information, and ask about the person behind the seller’s identity number, and we will provide you with his name, address, sales history and other details–all without having to produce a court order.”

Seventy percent of eBay customers make their purchases using Paypal, owned by EBay, which provides clearing services for online financial transactions. Through Paypal, EBay has access to the financial records of tens of millions of customers. “If you contact me,” said Sullivan to assembled law-enforcement authorities, “I will hook you up with the Paypal people. They will help you get the information you’re looking for.”

Unfortunately, this is neither new nor unique to EBay. As pressure grew from legislators and law enforcement officials after September 11, EBay, Amazon, Travelocity and others developed “privacy policies” that are sufficiently vague to give the companies complete discretion over what customer information to turn over to the government.

Online privacy took its biggest hit when the so-called “Patriot Act” became law, allowing ISPs to voluntarily hand over all “non-content” information to law enforcement without the need for a court order or subpoena. It also expanded the category of information that law-enforcement figures can seek with a simple subpoena (no court review required) to include, among other things, IP addresses and credit card and bank account numbers.

Although these potential invasions of privacy are visible in the online world, they are not limited to online transactions. You can no longer count on any transaction remaining private. The courts used to be involved when the government sought to obtain personal information about you, but there are more and more areas where law enforcement agencies can act unilaterally, without any review and in some cases without notice to you. And there are more and more big companies that will cooperate with them regardless of whether there is any good cause.

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