- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 16, 2003

The United States is at risk of turning into a full-fledged surveillance society where "Big Brother is watching you," says a report released yesterday by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Sophisticated technology makes advanced surveillance simple, but the erosion of constitutional protections in the wake of September 11 threatens the legal safeguards protecting Americans from excessive government snooping, the report concludes.
"Many people still do not grasp that Big Brother surveillance is no longer the stuff of books and movies," said Barry Steinhardt, director of the ACLU's Technology and Liberty Program. He co-authored the report, "Bigger Monsters, Weaker Chains: The Growth of an American Surveillance Society."
"Given the capabilities of today's technology, the only thing protecting us from a full-fledged surveillance society is the legal and political institutions we have inherited as Americans," Mr. Steinhardt said. "Unfortunately, the September 11 attacks have led some to embrace the fallacy that weakening the Constitution will strengthen America."
In the District, the Metropolitan Police Department has a network of 14 surveillance cameras it plans to use to monitor two downtown rallies this month. Cameras are used to monitor monuments, federal buildings and public venues.
Officials in Virginia Beach and in Tampa, Fla., operate video surveillance cameras with face-recognition technology. The system analyzes faces based on a series of measurements, such as the distance from the tip of the nose to the chin or the space between the eyes.
ACLU analysts also criticized increasing surveillance in the private sector, which compiles vast amounts of personal information for marketing and sales purposes. Much of the data end up in the wrong hands, they said.
"From government watch lists to secret wiretaps, Americans are unknowingly becoming targets of government surveillance," said Dorothy Ehrlich, executive director of the ACLU of Northern California. "It is dangerous for a democracy that government power goes unchecked, and for this reason it is imperative that our government be made accountable."
One example, the report states, is the Pentagon's Total Information Awareness program designed to collect a person's financial, medical, communication and travel records in a massive database in the hunt for terrorism.
"Even if TIA never materializes in its current form, what this report shows is that the underlying trends are much bigger than any one program or any one controversial figure like John Poindexter," Mr. Steinhardt said, referring to the TIA director who as President Reagan's national security adviser was prosecuted during the Iran-Contra scandal.
The report cites the proposed Computer Assisted Passenger Screening program as another example of government surveillance. CAPS would collect personal information on airline travelers to screen those deemed suspicious.
Concerns come from both sides of the political spectrum.
John Whitehead, founder of the conservative Virginia-based Rutherford Institute, wrote in an editorial that technology threatened the right of each U.S. citizen to participate in society without the express or implied threat of coercion.
"After all, that is exactly what constant surveillance is the ultimate implied threat of coercion," Mr. Whitehead wrote.
James Lewis, with the District-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said it is clear that America is becoming a surveillance society.
"The question is, 'How do you adjust the rules to take advantage of the technology that allows us to do this, and still give people the privacy they want and deserve?'" said Mr. Lewis, who is director of the center's Technology and Public Policy Program.
Mr. Steinhardt said Americans haven't felt the full potential of new surveillance technology because of latent inefficiencies in how government and businesses handle information.
"Database inefficiencies can't be expected to protect our privacy forever," he said. "Eventually, business-es and government agencies will settle on standards for tying together information, and gain the ability to monitor many of our activities either directly through surveillance cameras, or indirectly by analyzing the information trails we leave behind us as we go through life."


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