Grassroots/Hank Kalet

Erosion of Privacy

Everyday, it seems we cede more and more of our rights to technology. But technology is not the problem. Our relationship to it is, our outsized belief that the latest technological advance will make our lives better, will make us safer, richer, happier.

Already, businesses track our preferences, keep catalogues of our personal purchases, trace the use of our credit cards, the Web sites we visit, the magazines we read. They collate our private information and sell it to other businesses, to political parties, offer it to the government.

And we rarely raise a peep.

In the age of the war on terror, that can leave all of us vulnerable to unwarranted surveillance and spying by the government, as a report by the London-based Privacy International shows. The report, issued in December, said governments around the globe were “introduce(ing) sweeping surveillance and information-gathering measures in the name of security and controlling borders,” according to The Associated Press.

“The general trend is that privacy is being extinguished in country after country,” Simon Davies, the group’s director, told the AP. “Even those countries where we expected ongoing strong privacy protection, like Germany and Canada, are sinking into the mire.”

The report surveyed privacy issues in 47 countries, “including legal protection of privacy, enforcement, data sharing, the use of biometrics and the prevalence of closed circuit TV cameras.” It found that the Bush administration has engaged in “a litany of surveillance initiatives” that has led to a deterioration of privacy protections.

The report cited several concerns, including the lack of an explicit right to privacy in the Constitution or comprehensive federal privacy laws, the existence of extensive data-sharing programs across various federal agencies and business, weak protections of financial and medical privacy, data mining and the likelihood that Congress would grant immunity to the telecom immunity for its role in warrantless wiretapping.

The report added one other concern: the recent news that the FBI is creating a biometric database that could be “the largest database of biometrics around the world that is not protected by strong privacy law.”

The program, which CNN called a “massive computer database of people’s physical characteristics” designed to help the bureau better track “criminals and terrorists,” is a dangerous intrusion into our lives.

As CNN reported, the program will combine various pieces of biometric information — including “palm prints, scars and tattoos, iris eye patterns, and facial shapes” — to positively identify a potential suspect.

The problem, as the ACLU told CNN, is that the program is not likely to be limited to nefarious elements. The technology too easily can be used for other means, including employment background checks and the like.

“It’s the beginning of the surveillance society where you can be tracked anywhere, any time and all your movements, and eventually all your activities will be tracked and noted and correlated,” said Barry Steinhardt, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Technology and Liberty Project.

The Washington Post also reported on the program, saying it is designed to bring “together information from a wide variety of sources and mak(e) it available to multiple agencies increases the chances to catch criminals.”

This has the Electronic Privacy Information Center a bit concerned, Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told the Post.

“You’re giving the federal government access to an extraordinary amount of information linked to biometric identifiers that is becoming increasingly inaccurate,” he said.

And as Steinhardt told CNN, this will affect all of us.

“This had started out being a program to track or identify criminals,” he said. “Now we’re talking about large swaths of the population — workers, volunteers in youth programs. Eventually, it’s going to be everybody.”

Hank Kalet is a poet and managing editor of the South Brunswick Post and The Cranbury Press in central New Jersey. Email See his blog, Channel Surfing, at

From The Progressive Populist, March 1, 2008

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