Worse than identity theft? Legal use by government and industry of our private data

We all know identity thieves are out there -- ready to grab our personal information for their own criminal purposes. But is that our worst nightmare in the battle to keep our private selves private? James B. Rule sees a far scarier scenario: the legal use of our private data by government and industry. He outlines the erosion of privacy in American society in "Privacy in Peril: How We are Sacrificing a Fundamental Right in Exchange for Security and Convenience," released in paperback by Oxford University Press. Rule is an affiliated scholar with the Center for the Study of Law and Society at the University of California, Berkeley.


British authorities are planning to adopt unmanned airborne spy drones for domestic surveillance, according to The Guardian. With backing from the Home Office, British police are planning to adapt the track-and-destroy technologies lately used by American forces in Pakistan and Afghanistan to monitor their own fields, highways and other open spaces. These extraordinary aircraft operate from as high as 20,000 feet, unseen from the ground. Yet they are capable of following individuals and vehicles and, apparently, recording details of earthly behavior of interest to police. Targets would include major public events (including protests and other gatherings expected at the upcoming Olypics in 2012); antisocial driving; theft of tractors (apparently where these are left in open spaces); thefts from cash machines and a long list of other activities. The newspaper story noted that private companies could underwrite some of the costs -- and share in the capabilities -- of the drones.

When I lived in Britain in the 1970s, its culture struck me as a much more privacy-oriented than the United States. In those years, a proposal like this would surely have triggered howls of public outrage there in George Orwell country. Today Britain leads the world in video-monitoring of public places, with an estimated 4.2 million cameras in England and Wales -- that is, about one for every fourteen persons. Somehow, ordinary Brits have been sold on the idea that their well-being depends on ever-more-thoroughgoing public monitoring of private life.

Things aren't much different here in the United States -- or for that matter elsewhere in the world's so-called advanced societies. When surveillance entrepreneurs first proposed Backscatter -- a technology that produces naked images of clothed travelers for the benefit of airport security checks -- I thought they had overplayed their hand. Surely public indignation will finally bite back, and the idea will be dishonorably dismissed. But the near-miss attack on a U.S. airliner by a would-be terrorist with explosives concealed in his underwear has helped put that idea back in circulation.

Pressed for an account of the incremental loss of private spaces and personal data, most people probably fix blame on technology -- as though devices and mechanisms could in themselves alter human intent. In fact, for people to write off what they once held as core values, they need to be convinced that the sacrifice is necessary on behalf of some still more compelling concern -- public safety, the protection of the innocent, or punishment of the undeserving. Heroic exercises of entrpreneurship are required to convince us that, by accepting reduced privacy for everyone, we are somehow doing our part to make the world a better place.

Nobody really wants to live in a world totally stripped of private domains and experiences. Still, entrepreneurial zeal in the merchandizing of privacy-eroding activities only seems to grow with time. In today's world, there will always be technologies able to devour the private spaces and personal data remaining to us. The question is, Will we develop the cultural antibodies necessary to resist these appeals -- or will the desire to make the world safe, profitable and convenient ultimately relegate privacy to the archive of anachronistic values?

By Steven E. Levingston |  February 2, 2010; 5:30 AM ET Politics , Steven Levingston
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