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Do The Tech Watchdog Groups Need Watching?

Self-appointed advocacy groups have grabbed a share of the tech decision-making process.

It seems that every time a company or government entity proposes a new way to collect, disseminate, or act on data, whether it's to fight terrorism or track inventory, a small yet seemingly ubiquitous pack of self-proclaimed do-gooders links arms, threatens lawsuits, and warns about the end of the world as we know it.

Advocacy groups have become influential voices on some of the biggest tech policy issues. There's homeland security, where the likes of the Center for Democracy and Technology and the American Civil Liberties Union helped stall the Transportation Security Administration's Secure Flight airline passenger-screening program by raising concerns about privacy. There's the Electronic Frontier Foundation's ongoing litigation against AT&T, alleging improper cooperation with government surveillance efforts, and its support of efforts to give Web-based e-mail the same protection from warrantless searches it won in the early 1990s for e-mail on a hard drive. There's the Electronic Privacy Information Center's call for legislation to stipulate how radio frequency identification can and can't be used in passports and retail stores.

Whether they're testifying before Congress, suing government agencies and businesses, or relentlessly courting the news media, tech-savvy advocacy groups have stamped their feet enough to have left a sizable footprint in the debate over how technology is applied and governed. The Center for Democracy and Technology has testified before Congress more than any other advocacy group this decade--tech or otherwise.

Seen as necessary cyberwatchdogs by many, these advocacy groups have earned their reputations as headline-hogging alarmists. And while they can come off as a pack of wolves, they differ in their relationships with businesses--some rely heavily on corporate funding and will advise companies on potential product pitfalls, while others are more arm's length and confrontational.

Businesses needn't kowtow to these groups, but managers of business technology ignore them and the differences among them at their peril. It can be inconvenient and expensive to answer public charges about how securely RFID sensors wirelessly transmit information, or whether a business practice puts customer data at risk. But be assured that the advocates will continue grabbing headlines. It's only a question of whether it's your organization they're dragging along for the ride.

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