NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


January 28, 2005

A new book by Washington Post reporter Robert O'Harrow Jr. should give privacy advocates plenty to worry about: "No Place to Hide" details the increasing use of technology to track individuals and examples of what can go wrong when Big Brother is in charge.

However, O'Harrow's book does not weigh the benefits against the costs of surveillance and data collecting, says Heather MacDonald of the Manhattan Institute.

For example:

  • O'Harrow chronicles the rise of companies that collect data on consumers, but federal researchers are looking at how to use this information to identify terrorists and protect public safety.
  • He condemns post-9/11 reforms as tearing down limitations on the FBI's power (a la J. Edgar Hoover), but today's FBI is far more risk-averse, worrying more about protecting civil liberties than preventing terrorism.
  • He claims that surveillance on city streets "chills culture and stifles dissent," but MacDonald notes that visits to cities with cameras, such as London, Baltimore and Los Angeles, reveal that people are engaging in the same "exhibitionist" behavior as they always have.

Furthermore, while the government is finding ways to identify and track terrorists through computer technology, computer experts are also busily exploring ways to prevent the misuse of personal data, says MacDonald.

While privacy advocates wring their hands, most consumers are still willing to give out information about themselves and their preferences, says MacDonald. Moreover, they continue to purchase high-tech devices, such as cell phones, that have the potential for tracking by cops and consumer companies.

Source: Heather Mac Donald, "Everyone an Exhibitionist," Wall Street Journal, January 25, 005; based upon: Robert O'Harrow Jr., "No Place to Hide," Free Press, January 12, 2005.

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