Thursday, January 10, 2008

Study: U.S. among world’s ‘endemic-surveillance societies’

I suppose if a "wake up call" was still needed in America regarding our dwindling privacy rights this would be it. I speak of the findings just released in the annual "Report on Surveillance Society" by the U.S.-based Electronic Privacy Information Center and the U.K.-based Privacy International, which has been doing the survey since 1997.

Unlike in the past, this year's report ranks 47 nations on the issue of privacy protection, and as one might expect, the United States fairs poorly, very poorly. Specifically, we rank near the bottom of the countries surveyed and were labeled an “endemic-surveillance society” with poor privacy protection and aggressive monitoring by both the pubic and private sectors.

In fact, the U.S. ranking deteriorated since 2006, going from poor to bad. The intention behind the report is clearly laid out by its authors:

"First, we hope to recognize countries in which privacy protection and respect for privacy is nurtured. This is done in the hope that others can learn from their example. Second we intend to identify countries in which governments and privacy regulators have failed to create a healthy privacy environment. The aim is not to humiliate the worst ranking nations, but to demonstrate that it is possible to maintain a healthy respect for privacy within a secure and fully functional democracy."

As reported in Government Computer News,

"The report identifies technology as one of the culprits in the worsening situation. “The privacy trends have been fueled by the emergence of a profitable surveillance industry dominated by global [information technlogy] companies and the creation of numerous international treaties that frequently operate outside of judicial or democratic processes.”


The United Kingdom was rated the worst country in Europe and also listed as an endemic-surveillance society. The ranking was produced by the U.S.-based Electronic Privacy Information Center and the U.K.-based Privacy International...The full report is a massive 1,100 pages with 6,000 footnotes, but a summary of findings is available.

Among the findings contributing to the national ranking were:

No explicit right to privacy in the U.S. Constitution and no comprehensive privacy law.

The Federal Trade Commission continues to give inadequate attention to privacy issues, although it issued self-regulating privacy guidelines on advertising in 2007.

Real-ID and biometric identification programs continue to expand without adequate oversight, research and funding structures.

Extensive data-sharing programs across the federal government and with the private sector.

Congress approved a presidential program of spying on foreign communications over U.S. networks and now is considering immunity for telephone companies that cooperated in illegal programs.

Wilton D. Alston of the New American sums up the report nicely, rightly connecting the dots between privacy and surveillance with liberty and in increased surveillance and weakening privacy rights necessarily means a loss of liberty and freedom. This should have us all deeply concerned, and hopefully more vigilant:

At minimum the 2007 PI report confirms, in spades, previous reports suggesting that the U.S. was moving toward implementing a thorough surveillance state. Nevertheless, even with my background in researching and writing on the subject of privacy and surveillance, I was still taken aback to see the relative comparisons between the U.S., the UK, and everyone else. Even as I stated in my TNA surveillance cover story, that "the UK is now the world’s most watched country, having upwards of five million closed-circuit TV (CCTV) cameras keeping a watchful eye on the public, with the average citizen being caught on camera around 300 times per day," I was unprepared to see the stark comparisons.


And it is that possibility — that the health of democracy and freedom is directly linked to the pervasiveness of surveillance — that we must focus upon. As I noted in the TNA cover story, Americans currently seem to favor surveillance over privacy. "Security expert Bruce Schneier calls this effect, within the realm of surveillance psychology, the ‘availability heuristic.’ Most people would rather all their deepest secrets be posted on the Internet tomorrow than have a psychopathic serial killer escape capture today, assuming that’s the trade-off." That this is not the trade-off somehow gets lost in the shuffle.

This was confirmed for me recently via a Facebook survey that asked the question: "Is the U.S. safer since the war on terror began?" One of the respondents who said "yes" also noted, apparently as confirmatory evidence, that there had been no terrorist attacks since the USA PATRIOT Act was signed. To even the most juvenile student of statistics, this conclusion is flawed. If terrorist events only happen at a rate described by the number that have occurred on American soil, there is really no way to judge if the rate is lower or higher since 9/11. (No one ever said logic and statistics were the strong suits of Internet survey takers!)

More importantly, as
Judge Andrew Napolitano recently explained in an excellent speech given in DC and recorded on Reason.TV, the point is not that we must give up our liberty to achieve security. That is an over-used and patently absurd false dichotomy. In most cases, it is those who seek to extend their own power that are the biggest threats to our safety, and most times, those are people we elected! History is full of examples of this, dating back to the Alien and Sedition Acts and proceeding, in megalomaniacal glory, up to the USA PATRIOT Act.

Click here to read his analysis in its entirety.

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