DATABASE SNOOPING

WHO WILL POLICE THE POLICEMEN? One of Vice Admiral John M. Poindexter's final acts as national security adviser was to issue a policy paper calling for sweeping controls on information stored in computer systems and electronically transmitted. It called for federal departments and agencies to protect ''sensitive," unclassified information. Matters to be protected include ''a wide range of government or government-derived economic, human,

financial, industrial, agricultural, technological and law-enforcement information.

The new "sensitive" classification - neither classified nor unclassified - seems arbitrary and vague to the information industry. Private database vendors are concerned government may restrict information they supply to customers abroad and generally interfere in the industry. The administration apparently worries about the consequences of the Soviet bloc's obtaining the data. And the scientific community, which thrives on communication and cooperation among laboratories and universities around the world, understandably wants no unnecessary barriers to research.Early this year, at an Information Industry Association conference in New York, Diane Fountaine, a Pentagon information services director, said that DOD will review government and privately owned databases for sensitive information to determine whether to monitor or restrict their use: "The question is not whether we're going to protect information. The question is, where will the controls be applied?"

Ken Allen, IIA's senior vice president for government affairs, asserted his belief that information in databases is protected by the First Amendment ''like information in the public library. The great danger," he said, "is self-censorship (by the database industry) due to (fears of) what the government might do."

According to Sharon Peake of Meade Data Central, operator of Lexis and Nexis data banks, restrictions on private vendors would harm the U.S. economy. Eighteen of 20 of the world's leading databases are American and are under competitive attack from overseas. Subscribers - engineers, lawyers, foreign traders and other professionals - rely on database information to make business decisions. In her words: The United States has the lead. We'd hate to see anything happen to curtail that growth."

Mead Data has been visited, she said, by the CIA, FBI and DOD, their agents intimating that some of the information in the databases was harmful to security. But, she added, the information had been provided by the government itself. The agents posed such questions as, "If we asked you, would you tell who has searched your databases?" Also, "If we asked you, would you tell who your customers are?"

Ms. Peake insisted that Mead Data would deny the government requests: ''What a person searches is confidential. We hold this a very privileged relationship."

Such interrogation sounds more like intimidation than benign information seeking. Governments long have sought to control and suppress information. Totalitarianism, according to Webster's, involves strict control of all aspects of the life and productive capacity of the nation, especially by coercive measures such as censorship and terrorism. It is paradoxical that some of the people most concerned about the dangers posed by the Soviet Union, such as Admiral Poindexter, have at times seemed to emulate the mentality of the very government they castigate for its suppressive behavior.

For the full story: Log In, Register for Free or Subscribe