Privacy fears move closer to reality

A forum for digerati to pose a series of frightening "what if" scenarios has morphed into an event where participants' worst surveillance nightmares may be poised to come true.

3 min read
SAN FRANCISCO--In a post-Sept. 11 world, the technical opportunities for surveillance seem endless: national identification cards, face-recognition systems and video cameras on street corners.

But who will ensure that those technologies are not abused in the name of protecting citizens from terrorism?

Technologists, free-speech experts and general hangers-on are grappling with that question and others at the Computers Freedom & Privacy conference here this week.

The conference, normally a forum for digerati to pose a series of frightening "what if" scenarios, has morphed into an event where participants' worst surveillance nightmares may be poised to come true following the terrorist attacks.

They point to the six-month-old Patriot Act, which gives law enforcement unprecedented power to monitor citizens' habits--including Web and e-mail use. In addition, they worry that cities are increasingly adopting surveillance techniques under the guise of homeland security.

But conference attendees' attempt to defend civil liberties in the face of mounting security measures is more of an uphill battle than ever before. The public's tolerance of surveillance increased dramatically after Sept. 11, and members of the Bush administration are leveraging their high approval rating to expand monitoring.

Speakers worried that law enforcement agencies could rush to implement technology that's ineffective and invasive--and that the tech industry would help them.

"The homeland security budget is pork for the IT industry," said Andrew Schulman, chief researcher of the Privacy Foundation.

Speaking during a panel on national ID cards, Schulman and others said plans to identify all citizens could lead to efforts to track them. The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators is working on a system that would link records from different states, prompting fears that law enforcement agencies would use personal information to invade citizens' privacy.

Questions about the system--which is in its nascent stages--include who would have access to the information, how they would use it, and whether citizens would be notified. The Electronic Privacy Information Center has filed a suit against the federal Office of Homeland Security that seeks answers to such questions.

Answering the critics
The Patriot Act, a law passed in October that expands law enforcement power, drew particular scorn.

Some speakers said they have been doubly frustrated by the Patriot Act itself and by the lack of information about monitoring activities taking place as the result of the measure. Author James Bamford called the act the "eavesdropping equivalent of weapons of mass destruction."

Jerry Berman, executive director of technology policy group the Center for Democracy and Technology, reiterated many of the concerns that were voiced as the law was being considered last October, saying the bill's backers resisted public discussion in an attempt to obtain new monitoring capabilities.

"It is a very serious civil liberties danger," Berman said.

A few law enforcement representatives attended the conference. Panelist Chris Painter of the U.S. Department of Justice spent much of his time defending the Patriot Act, saying criticism of the measure has been full of "misstatement and hyperbole."

"There was ample debate," Painter said of the act's passage, drawing a few jeers from the audience.

Ron Davis, a captain in the Oakland, Calif., Police Department, said law enforcement officials should participate in more discussions about technology and its role in fighting crime.

"I find it interesting that law enforcement isn't really at the table," Davis said during a session on biometric technology. Many police departments are considering or already implementing face-recognition systems and other biometric measures in an attempt to capture criminals. "Once you bring (the technology) to us, it's too late."