- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 29, 2003

The European Union has taken a step toward closer electronic surveillance of people within its borders. Ten days ago, member-states approved funding for a passport system using retina scans and digitally reproduced fingerprints. The new technology also promises to improve airport security.

The fact of the matter is that the era of widespread privacy is ending. This isn’t the result of a big-brother government conspiracy to track its citizens, but a byproduct of the electronic age. The realization of a sense of individual privacy was largely a figment of the 20th century. Certainly, there was not much practical or theoretical privacy before then, when the majority of rural populations lived in small villages where townfolk all knew each other’s business. It was only for a brief period after industrialization, when the masses were pushed into sprawling cities, that the experience of being literally one among millions provided a sense of privacy through anonymity. The electronic revolution is merely ending a temporary phenomenon created by industrialization.

Aside from computer chips being embedded with fingerprints or eye scans — technology known as biometrics — there is not much private information a government can get its hands on and use through new technology that isn’t already available, particularly in the private sector. For years, private firms have had the ability to chart purchasing trends through credit-card and other computer records. This data, which is sold from company to company, is available for all manner of private marketing solicitations. If a government agency wants the information, all it would have to do now is buy it.

Timing is a factor in the biometrics debate. Washington accelerated programs making use of the new technology after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. This is an example of the government trying to protect its citizens — not go after them. In fact, the impetus behind the EU’s developing biometric passports was a law passed by Congress last year stipulating that nations must introduce passports with biometric data to keep visa-free travel status to the United States. There is a strong case to be made that this policy will aid airport security.

But our fundamental rights are not being lost simply because a feeling of information privacy is vanishing. The Fourth Amendment still protects the physical security of Americans: Police cannot break their doors down at will, and the amendment bars the kind of serious infringements on our persons and property that worried the nation’s founders. We do not support biometric technology being used by municipal governments to harass individuals — as they do with traffic cameras. But utilizing it to prevent more terrorist attacks makes all of us more safe, not less.

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