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Surveillance and Society

The subject of surveillance in a free society is controversial. As currently enabled, FISA allows our intelligence agencies to listen in on conversations between terrorists in the Middle East who may be plotting to hurt America. While we have ongoing debates about the FISA courts, arguing the balance between citizen privacy and gathering information to prevent or intercept terrorist attacks, there are sufficient enough examples in recent time in which such surveillance has led to an early detection and response to a planned terrorist attack. I don’t really see much alternative.

In fact, National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell believes that the government needs even more expansive powers to examine web searches, internet activity, and e-mail.

FISA – the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act – is the biggest obstacle, argues McConnell, with its outdated rules creating absurd situations that needlessly hamstring intelligence efforts. Worse, U.S. lawmakers are continually dragging their feet, and he thinks that the policy of tweaking 30-year-old laws is insufficient. “If we don’t update FISA, the nation is significantly at risk,” said McConnell. He noted that the NSA’s monitoring capabilities dropped by 70 percent when federal judges entered a secret ruling that required warrants for intercepting traffic that “incidentally flowed” into domestic computer systems.

Well, early last week, the U.K.-based Privacy International and the U.S.-based Electronic Privacy Information Center gave the U.S., the United Kingdom, China and Russia the lowest possible rating, “endemic surveillance societies.” Of course, this is the first time that the United States has dropped to the “bottom rung,” with the two groups attributed the U.S. position to increased surveillance and reduced government oversight, all from the concern over terrorism, immigration, and border control. It is the second year in a row at this low level for the U.K. that has the World’s largest network of surveillance cameras. The U.K.'s extensive use of surveillance cameras was covered in an earlier post, Emerging Trend: Use of Public Surveillance in the U.S.

Plans for National ID cards or other types of identification documents containing biometric information leads to a low rating by these organizations. That would certainly include the eventual coming of the ID cards in compliance with the Real ID Act and other DHS rulings. Another contributor to a low rating include security breaches when data or information is lost. Generally, this report showed a general increase of surveillance around the globe and noted a decline in “privacy safeguards” last year.

New Scientist's Phil McKenna writes in his article, US and UK rival China for government surveillance that part of the problem may be technology advancing faster than government safeguards.

Part of the problem may be technology advancing faster than government safeguards. "There is a rapid expansion of technologies for surveillance, identification, and border control and a much slower adoption of policies to safeguard privacy and security," says Marc Rotenberg, of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. Despite their low ratings, the US and UK do not compromise privacy as much as China or Russia, says John Palfrey, of the OpenNet Initiative, an international academic research group that monitors government internet filtering and surveillance. Yet, he is troubled by the way governments can anonymously monitor internet traffic.
"Even democratic societies don't make clear to their citizens how comprehensively governments reach into the private lives of individuals," says Palfrey. "We have no way of knowing what our government can come to know about us as private citizens."

The question of surveillance cameras was also raised in a recent Chief Security Officer Online (CSOonline), Should Surveillance Cameras Detect Criminals - or Deter Crime? The article discusses the use of a covert surveillance camera to detect “graffiti-related motion” by snapping pictures and emailing them to the police, and collects TV-quality video on a tamper-resistant, encrypted memory card. The problem in this case is that the particular product discussed stops criminals (graffiti artists) but does nothing to deter crime itself (vandalism).

The contradiction here lies in the fact that detection, by definition, must allow the crime to start taking place. Otherwise there’s nothing to detect. Hidden cameras still allow paint to get on the wall, which happens to be by far the most expensive aspect of the graffiti problem—the cleanup. This particular article comments that deterrence (consistently removing graffiti within 24-48 hours) is more effective than the detection itself. Thus, CSO argues that addressing the crime is a more effective use of time than the detection.

Clearly, the comparison between terrorism and graffiti is a bit ludicrous. But the question of surveillance, and weighing of the balance between its benefits and costs, will be a continuing issue. In the case of terrorism, we have no choice but to continue walking that thin line between pre-empting acts of terrorism by detecting plans ahead of time, and abridging the rights of normal citizens. Somehow, I still don’t see how any of my rights have been limited.