NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


August 3, 2005

We may not generally have an expectation of privacy in a public place in terms of what others may see or hear, but new technologies have a virtually unlimited capability to inspect, record and assess. Surveillance technology is valuable precisely because it destroys our expectation of privacy, says Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).

Should we be concerned about the loss of privacy? Rotenberg says that what little security is gained is hardly worth the tradeoff:

  • There are more than 4.2 million closed circuit television cameras in Great Britain.
  • London has more cameras than any other city in the world, yet, on July 7, London suffered its worst terrorist attack since the end of World War II.
  • Other countries -- including Spain, Germany and the United States -- have managed to investigate terrorist attacks without the constant hi-tech observation that those in London routinely experience.

Moreover, says Rotenberg, mass surveillance technology is far outpacing legal protections:

  • "Smart" camera systems may soon match individual images against actual identity. Backscatter X-ray will reveal individuals as if they were naked.
  • That technology was to be used only for special airline passenger inspections. Now passengers on the London subway will go through the virtual strip search.

That is the type of mission creep that follows new surveillance systems, he says.

In the days after 9/11, political leaders said they would safeguard America's constitutional rights. Since then, the government has passed the Patriot Act to give police new search powers, enacted legislation to turn the state driver's license into a national ID card, established secret watch lists and devoted millions of dollars to new systems of public surveillance. It's time to draw a line before we end up in a fishbowl, says Rotenberg.

Source: Marc Rotenberg, "Limit camera surveillance: Technology outpaces legal protections and threatens privacy," USA Today, August 2, 2005.


Browse more articles on Government Issues