Protecting Privacy in the Database Nation

  • CATO Institute, DC –Protecting Privacy in the Database Nation.

    The convergence of privacy-invading technologies and Washington's appetite for surveillance have put civil liberties on the run. This is especially true in the war against terrorism.

    Controversial initiatives have included biometric face cameras, wiretap enhancements, invasive computer-assisted airline passenger screening, escalated e-mail monitoring fostered by the USA Patriot Act, and the Pentagon's Total Information Awareness data-mining project (now renamed the “Terrorism” Information Awareness, or TIA). Even a national ID card was proposed.

    In the right circumstances, data-mining technologies and “biometrics” — such as voice prints, retina, iris and face scanners, digitized fingerprints, and even implantable chips — can benefit us. That's because data-mining and biometrics, at least in principle, are about enhancing convenience, service, authentication, and individual security more than they are about invading privacy. Biometrics, for example, promises increased privacy and security by guarding against identity theft in our myriad marketplace transactions. We'll see their use in cell phones, laptops, car doors, doorknobs and office keys — basically everywhere. They can increase security in online commerce, help locate a lost youngster, relay medical information to doctors, and much more.

    But inherently “invasive” technologies like these can threaten fundamental values of privacy and liberty if misused. No one wants to be treated like a human bar code by the authorities, or monitored around the clock by the Homeland Security Department. Thus, we need a framework by which to distinguish appropriate and inappropriate uses or surveillance-enabling technologies.

    The most pressing threat to liberty is a compulsory database encompassing everyone. Examples are a mandatory National ID with biometric identifiers, or involuntary data-mining like the TIA that would permit real-time monitoring of our whereabouts, movements and transactions. This is a Big Brother scenario, one of constant surveillance or harassment of citizens unrelated to addressing terrorist threats. You can't opt-out.  [Privacy Digest]

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