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More Security, Less Privacy

Mal Fletcher
Posted 01 September 2006
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Unless you've been living on the planet Zafod of late you will have read about the alleged threat to blow up planes en route from London to the US.

As I write this, I'm sitting in an airport (something I spend a lot of time doing) -- this time it's Gatwick in the UK.

The queues for security checks were far longer than I've ever seen them anywhere, perhaps outside of Israel (though it would be a close run thing).

A question leaps to mind. How much more can people tolerate? Not just in terms of time wasted at airports and the inconvenience of long lines (and, in some respects, seemingly trivial rules), but in terms of the further intrusion of their privacy.

Democracies need surveillance if they are to function as free societies. The increased security we see at airports is not an isolated event, however: it is part of an increasingly intrusive approach by government and other agencies.

Recently, there's been a shift in many countries from limited surveillance to mass surveillance of whole populations. Modern technologies like "smart" ID cards, advanced CCTV, computer intercept systems and biometrics have made this even easier for governments to do.

It almost goes without saying that the new surveillance technology available today is good news for the world's more repressive governments. The more a regime hungers for power, the more it feeds on personal information. Autocratic governments use surveillance technology to track the activities of dissidents, human rights activists, journalists and student leaders. They also monitor larger sectors of the population, watching financial transactions and communications on a huge scale.

Technology is, of course, amoral. But even those technologies that start out harmless are very quickly put to sinister uses.

For example, cameras manufactured in the UK were placed in Tianemman Square for traffic control. When the student demonstrations occurred there, though, these same cameras were turned on the protesters. The authorities broadcast their pictures on TV, ensuring that they were identified and turned in to the police.

One of the big concerns in the debate about privacy is the links that exist between companies in the surveillance sector and others that export weapons.

According to one report, more than 70 percent of surveillance tech companies also export arms of some kind.

Western technology is being used to bolster totalitarian regimes that have little or no time for fundamental human rights.

It's not just governments that affect the level of privacy in our lives. So do some of the companies we work for -- and once again, they often do so in the name of security.

An increasing number of companies are now tracking Internet use by their employees, or tapping office phones. Some employers can even watch workers on closed-circuit TV.

In America, more than half of all corporate e-mail systems are monitored by management.

Companies often say they're doing this for legal or economic reasons, or to improve customer service, and they may in future increasingly use the security angle. Yet what they're doing is often nothing more than electronic eavesdropping.

Of course, there can be sound reasons for some of this surveillance at work. For example, companies want to prevent the spread of hard-poor porn or racist material through their computers. One large American oil company was forced to pay damages in a sexual harassment claim that was based on a few personal e-mails between employees.

There are almost always sound reasons for upgrading security checks in any sphere of community life -- whether by business or by government. But once the seeds of surveillance are firmly planted, they will grow. They will invariably produce new fruits of intrusion. And those who introduce and maintain them will be reluctant to ease off, even if particular security threats are downgraded.

For more on this subject, watch the EDGES TV programme on Privacy. Click here.

What’s your view?

Do you feel that security levels are becoming intrusive?



Keywords: terrorist attack | airport security | privacy | public security | Mal Fletcher | social comment

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