Saving Private Gore

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WASHINGTON: It's Al Gore's latest big idea: the Electronic Bill of Rights. Protecting children's privacy online. Preventing identity theft. Locking up your medical records. In fact, take just about any privacy proposal you can think of, and chances are the Vice President laid claim to it in the Roosevelt Room of the White House Friday. "Privacy is a basic American value -- in the Information Age, in every age," said Gore, sounding as if he'd started out on the campaign trail two years too early.

But that doesn't stack up well next to the administration's record thus far, say privacy advocates. "Clinton and Gore have done for privacy what Pol Pot did for human rights," says David Banisar of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. Even after Friday's big show, they're still steadfastly opposed to a law requiring police to get a search warrant before snooping through your medical files. And Gore himself once championed the long-dead "Clipper chip," the unloved device that would have effectively given police a peephole into your computer.

So is the e-Bill of Rights, with its emphasis on kids and medical records, just a shameless vote-grabber? No, says TIME Washington correspondent Jay Branegan -- it's a shameless big-business-grabber, too. "Gore's whole 2000 campaign is going to be built on being Mr. New Economy," says Branegan. "He's motivated by polls that show privacy fears are starting to act as a drag on the growth of e-commerce." And if the online economy is invigorated, they'll have more campaign dollars to dish out, right? As one Gore aide told TIME, "The Vice President doesn't come to these issues as a novice."