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Report: Anti-terror efforts pinch privacy

Since last year's terrorist attacks, governments have been moving to restrict privacy and boost surveillance, according to two privacy groups.

In the year that has elapsed since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the world's governments have moved to restrict privacy, boost surveillance and increase linking of databases, according to a survey released by a pair of advocacy groups on Tuesday.

The 393-page report, which reviews current and proposed laws in 50 nations, is the first comprehensive survey of how privacy rights have been globally affected after last September's catastrophes. It was released by human rights group Privacy International and the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

Four trends have become apparent, according to the report: the swift erosion of pro-privacy laws; greater data sharing among corporations, police and spy agencies; greater eavesdropping; and sharply increased interest in people-tracking technologies, such as face-recognition systems and national ID cards.

"It's actually pretty shocking if you look at the timeline that's involved here," said Sarah Andrews, research director of the EPIC and the author of the report. "Getting legislation through a government is not an easy thing to do, and most of this happened before the end of 2001."

EPIC is a nonprofit group located in Washington, D.C., that advocates for limits on government surveillance while supporting a far-reaching regulatory regime that would control the data collection practices of private corporations. Its voice is one of many in the intense debate over finding a balance between security and liberty.

The government activities reached well beyond the United States, where the attacks took place, according to the report. "The policy changes were not limited to the United States, as a large number of countries responded to the threat of terrorism."

In response, the European Commission is considering a requirement that would make cyberattacks punishable as a terrorist office, Australia and Canada are drafting laws to permit spy agencies to conduct domestic surveillance of citizens, and a U.K. law now authorizes Internet providers to retain data for police purposes. Canada has proposed opening airline passenger databases to police, and German officials have suggested creating a database of "known troublemakers."

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In the United States, President Bush signed the controversial USA Patriot Act on Oct. 26. It expands all forms of electronic surveillance, permits increased information sharing between the CIA and federal police, and encourages Internet providers to work closely with police.

Besides government eavesdropping, the survey worries about the future of workplace privacy rights, genetic privacy, hidden spyware implanted into software and technology for managing digital rights.

EPIC's report is an annual event, but last year's edition was sent to the printer in August and distributed in mid-September, after the assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon changed the way Washington felt about privacy. Since then, the political mood has shifted away from a privacy-protective stance to one that seeks to preserve security instead.