Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Nearing the top

With annoying frequency, the U.S. appears at the bottom of various lists of developed nations that are compared on the basis of health care, education and other indicia of their quality of life. But it's not always good news when the U.S. comes in at, or close to, the top.

A case in point is a study of 47 countries, including the world's "leading surveillance societies," by Privacy International.* Based on a thirteen criteria, the U.S. was listed among eight "endemic" surveillance societies that include China, Russia, Malaysia, Singapore, Lithuania and—near the very top—the U.K. The U.S. and Brits are the only western democracies that received the highest rankings.

The 39 surveyed countries with better privacy protections than the U.S. include Canada, Germany, Argentina, Italy, Romania and Estonia all other countries in the EU except the U.K. and Lithuania.

The authors note:
The U.S. was listed among the countries with the "worst records" in 7 out of 13 categories, including:
  • Statutory protection
  • Privacy enforcement
  • Identity cards and biometrics
  • Communications interception
  • Workplace monitoring
  • Surveillance of Medical, Financial and Movement
  • Border and transborder issues
  • Leadership
In its review of U.S. privacy laws and practices, Privacy International noted the following:
  • "No right to privacy in constitution, though search and seizure protections exist in 4th Amendment; case law on government searches has considered new technology
  • "No comprehensive privacy law, many sectoral laws; though tort of privacy
  • "FTC continues to give inadequate attention to privacy issues, though issued self-regulating privacy guidelines on advertising in 2007
  • "State-level data breach legislation has proven to be useful in identifying faults in security
  • "REAL-ID and biometric identification programs continue to spread without adequate oversight, research, and funding structures
  • "Extensive data-sharing programs across federal government and with private sector
  • "Spreading use of CCTV
  • "Congress approved presidential program of spying on foreign communications over U.S. networks, e.g. Gmail, Hotmail, etc.; and now considering immunity for telephone companies, while government claims secrecy, thus barring any legal action
  • "No data retention law as yet, but equally no data protection law
  • "World leading in border surveillance, mandating trans-border data flows
  • "Weak protections of financial and medical privacy; plans spread for 'rings of steel' around cities to monitor movements of individuals
  • "Democratic safeguards tend to be strong but new Congress and political dynamics show that immigration and terrorism continue to leave politicians scared and without principle
  • "Lack of action on data breach legislation on the federal level while REAL-ID is still compelled upon states has shown that states can make informed decisions
  • "Recent news regarding FBI biometric database raises particular concerns as this could lead to the largest database of biometrics around the world that is not protected by strong privacy law."

What is Congress doing to protect its constituents from these predations, which seem to be expanding without restraints? Nothing. In fact, the U.S. has slipped since last year. As noted in the report, "immigration and terrorism continue to leave politicians scared and without principle." And, in an election year, the situation can only get worse. In the absence of any sustained public protests over the loss of personal privacy, the political classes will reflexively favor a growing security regime—even though it's hardly clear that unrestrained government surveillance is actually effective in deterring crime, illegal immigration or terrorism.


*This annual survey has been conducted since 1997 by Electronic Privacy Information Center and the UK-based Privacy International. [A tip of the hat to Bean at Lawyers, Guns and Money for the link.]

PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

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