Unprecedented security measures put in place in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States have some civil libertarians worried that the tenuous balance between the need for public protection and the right to privacy may be shifting rapidly in the wrong direction.
They cite plenty of examples:
A new public video-monitoring system has been deployed in Washington.
Multiple proposals have been put forward to track and store photos and biometric and profiling data belonging to millions of air travelers and visitors to public buildings.
Some states are pushing to convert driver’s licenses into national identification cards.
Congress has granted federal law enforcement agencies sweeping new powers to monitor the Internet and other forms of electronic communications.
“There is a long history of data being used for purposes other than for which it was collected, and the potential for abuse here is enormous,” said Steven Kobrin, a professor and privacy expert at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. “The odds that our privacy is being invaded by the government have certainly gone up, and the odds that we will ever know about it have gone down.”
The Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington has also weighed in on several occasions, most recently to protest the video monitoring of visitors to the nation’s capital. The watchdog organization called that effort an attempt to turn Washington into “the crucible for high-tech surveillance.”
Some experts have taken the opposite view, arguing that the increase in IT-based surveillance and other security measures actually helps to protect privacy.
“The measures that we are imposing are fundamental privacy protections,” said Allan Raul, former White House counsel under the Reagan and Bush administrations and a partner at the Washington office of international law firm Sidley Austin Brown & Wood LLP.
“The fundamental threat to our privacy is when terrorists and criminals are able to intrude on the privacy and sanctity of our families and lives,” he said. “Safety is a privacy value.”
The balance between privacy and security “is always about trade-offs,” said Kathleen Wallman, a former White House associate counsel and Federal Communications Commission bureau chief that now runs Wallman Strategic Consulting LLC in Washington.
“A year ago, the big debate was in the commercial sector,” she said, referring to the issues surrounding online consumer privacy. “Now that’s taken a back seat.”
However, she noted that people will put up with those measures only until they’re “no longer transparent or when a mistake occurs.”
Raul agreed that data must be protected from inadvertent disclosure. However, “people [in general] tend to be more realistic and practical than a lot of the civil libertarians are,” he said.