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Buyer Beware | The Nation

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Buyer Beware

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Speaking at a conference this winter on Internet crime, eBay.com's director of law enforcement and compliance, Joseph Sullivan, offered law-enforcement officials extensive access to personal customer information.

About the Author

Jonah Engle
Jonah Engle, a winter/spring 2003 Nation intern, is a freelance writer and researcher living in New York City.

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The Senegalese capital Dakar was put on lockdown mode for Bush's recent visit.

"If you want to avoid another Saddam Hussein, you have to work
toward peace and democracy in the Middle East."

Founded in 1995 as a niche site for collectibles, eBay quickly grew into one of the Internet's largest websites, currently boasting 69 million daily visitors, who place an average of 7.7 million bids each day. The company, now valued at $29.6 billion, has become synonymous with online shopping, and is rapidly expanding overseas.

The talk, "Working with Law Enforcement," was delivered at the CyberCrime 2003 conference in Mashantucket, Connecticut. Sullivan, who left the Justice Department to become senior counsel for rules, trust and safety at eBay last year, told the audience of law-enforcement officials and industry executives that he didn't "know another website that has a privacy policy as flexible as eBay's," seemingly meaning that eBay acts particularly quickly to grant law enforcement extensive access to user information without regard to established legal procedures that protect individuals from civil rights abuses by the state.

Brags Sullivan, "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." (eBay itself goes further than this, employing six investigators who are charged with tracking down "suspicious people" and "suspicious behavior.")

Seventy percent of eBay customers, as well as a significant portion of the rest of the online commercial world, make their purchases using (eBay-owned) Paypal, 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.... In order to give you details about credit-card transactions, I have to see a court order. I suggest that you get one, if that's what you're looking for."

Sullivan even offered to conscript eBay's employees in virtual sting operations: "Tell us what you want to ask the bad guys. We'll send them a form, signed by us, and ask them your questions. We will send their answers directly to your e-mail."

Sullivan's statements were first reported by Yuval Dror in the Tel Aviv-based daily Ha'aretz; surprisingly, they have received no coverage in the US media. And, while they may seem extreme, Sullivan's eBay policies seem to fit into a larger pattern of eroding online privacy.

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