Saturday, October 6, 2007

Homeland Security's Chertoff: more surveillance, less privacy

Americans are increasingly more willing to trade privacy for security, according to a recent Washington Post poll, and comments by Michael Chertoff, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security at the International Data Protection and Privacy Commissioner's conference in Montreal earlier this week reflect this outlook.

Michael Geist reported on the BBC news site about Chertoff’s presentation at this year’s global privacy conference, where the theme was “Terra Incognita”, the latin term for unknown lands:

In a room full of privacy advocates, Chertoff came not with a peace offering, but rather a confrontational challenge.

He unapologetically made the case for greater surveillance in which governments collect an ever-increasing amount of data about their citizens in the name of security.

For example, in support of his security agenda, he noted that US forces in Iraq once gathered a single fingerprint from a steering wheel of a vehicle that was used in a bombing attack and matched it to one obtained years earlier at a US border crossing.

He added that there was a similar instance in England, where one fingerprint in a London home linked to a bombing was matched to a fingerprint gathered at a US airport (the identified person was actually innocent of wrongdoing, however).

Chertoff explained that in the autumn the US intends to expand its fingerprinting collection program by requiring all non-Canadians entering his country to provide prints of all ten fingers (it currently requires two fingerprints).

In the process, his vision of a broad surveillance society - supported by massive databases of biometric data collected from hundreds of millions of people - presented a chilling future. Rather than terra incognita, Chertoff seemed to say there is a known reality about our future course and there is little that the privacy community can do about it.

David Brin’s book The Transparent Society discusses the illusion of privacy and advocates making most information available to everyone to ensure greater transparency and accountability. Security does seem to be prevailing over privacy, and, ironically, greater openness is regarded as the means to safeguard personal liberties. It’s a frightening prospect in many ways, but perhaps a more palatable option than the current move to consolidate information into the hands of government, corporations, the military or police.

Chertoff's observations are provocative and may lead our privacy commissioners to shift the debate from "privacy versus security" to focus more on issues of accountability and oversight.

1 comment:

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