Security trumps privacy
In the name of thwarting terrorism, Americans are more accepting than ever of technology that tracks their every move.
Big Brother may be watching us, but since Sept. 11, most Americans are happy to have him around.
Take Virginia Beach City Council member Rosemary Wilson. In July, she worried that a police department plan to scan beachgoers' faces with recognition cameras would intrude on their privacy.
But a few weeks after the World Trade Center attack, Ms. Wilson joined fellow city council members who passed the plan 10 to 1. "We're living in a different world now," she says.
Governments at all levels are hoping to thwart future terrorist attacks with new technologies that listen, watch, and track people's movements. And the public is suddenly embracing technologies it found chillingly invasive only months ago.
Two-thirds of Americans surveyed in September said they'd favor government use of face-recognition or national ID cards. And last month, 60 percent said they'd be willing to give up anonymity on the Web to battle terrorists.
Manufacturers promise those devices will offer both heightened safety and greater convenience, allowing people to move quickly through airport security lines or avoid intrusive searches on public streets. But civil libertarians worry that the nation will sacrifice privacy in exchange for a false sense of security. "We the people have enabled our lawmakers to increase their surveillance powers over all of us to the point of no return," says Beth Givens of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse in San Diego.
Since the attacks, Congress and the president have agreed on anti-terror laws that make it easier for the government to eavesdrop on e-mail and to monitor financial transactions.
Airports are ordering iris and thumbprint readers to identify employees, as well as facial-scanning software that compares the faces of passengers with a database of undesirables.
But it's not just airports that have turned to such high-tech surveillance equipment. Authorities at last year's Super Bowl in Tampa scanned faces in the crowd electronically. Six months ago, Tampa also became the first US city to deploy facial-recognition cameras in the streets of its downtown Ybor City entertainment district. And nationwide, some 4 million closed-circuit television cameras film people in supermarkets, dressing rooms, and public spaces.
Virginia Beach, population 425,000, already deploys closed-circuit cameras along its boardwalk. Yet politicians and citizens reacted coolly when the police chief first proposed adding biometric scanning last summer.
Unlike Social Security cards or passports, biometric identification uses the human body itself as the basis for checking a person's identity. And unlike video cameras, which simply act as a record police can review, biometric software identifies people instantaneously.
Mayor Meyera E. Oberndorf questioned whether a city that boasts of being the safest its size in America needed to put its citizens through such a "trauma."
That skepticism vanished after investigators determined that at least two hijackers who flew planes into the World Trade Center stayed in local motels and cashed checks at local banks.
Yet not everyone is convinced. "We're overreacting to what happened on Sept. 11," says Reba McClennan, the lone dissenting Virginia Beach City Council member. "You can't be too careful, but you have to go back and look and see if this would work."
So far, studies have found biometric scanners, which read dozens of features on each person's face, can be fooled by eyeglasses, hats, facial hair, or even exaggerated smiles. The failure rate may be even higher in streets where authorities can't control the lighting, ask people to remove their glasses, or stay within 10 feet of the camera.
Defining who is included in the database presents tricky challenges for local law-enforcement agencies, says criminology professor Susan Brinkley at the University of Tampa.
If a target has never been subject to investigation, there won't be any record in the database to flag authorities. That was the case with many of the World Trade Center hijackers who had no criminal record.
And even when a terrorist is known, federal law-enforcement agencies, reluctant to spread their classified intelligence, haven't been open to sharing information with local police departments since Sept. 11, says Prof. James Wayman, director of San Jose University's Biometrics Identification Research Group.
While Tampa currently compares faces against a database of people wanted on felony warrants, cities could broaden it to include people who fail to pay child support or even people previously arrested for panhandling.
Although Americans, by law, don't enjoy the same expectation of privacy in the streets as they do at home, privacy advocates and some technology developers worry about widely deploying facial-recognition software. "We don't want to be in the business of knowing what bars you went to and who you left with - that's intrusive," says Viisage CEO Colatosti, who declined to supply the software for either the Ybor City or Virginia Beach projects.
Unlike fingerprint or retinal scans that require a person to submit to examination, targets may never know that they're being scanned. Super Bowl spectators in Tampa, for instance, didn't learn that their faces were scanned upon entrance until a local newspaper described the process the week after the game.
Joseph Atick, CEO of Visionics, says the public actually benefits from the technology, since it averts the questioning of people individually at checkpoints and frees up police officers to patrol. But like biometrics, other technologies designed for benign purposes might one day be used for more intrusive ones. For example, SafeTzone, in Pasedena, Calif., has developed transmitters that allow parents to find their lost children in amusement parks. Just go to a kiosk in the park, scan your bracelet's bar code, and the location of every member of your party will pop up on a computer screen.
But put the transmitter on a national identification card, link the software to global positioning satellites instead of localized transmitters, and people could be tracked anywhere they go.
Sound farfetched? Similar technology already tracks criminals out on probation. And the Federal Communication Commission will soon require all new cellphones to have transmitters allowing them to be located within a few hundred feet.
The public's willingness to accept these technologies worries privacy advocates, who say it will only open the door for greater intrusions on privacy in the future. "As the technologies become more accepted, it will be used more and more. The legal standard will drop on how it's used," says Richard Smith, a Brookline, Mass., Internet security and privacy consultant. "It sends a bad message to say the government is watching us in this way."
Already, ideas that seemed impossible prior to Sept. 11 have entered the mainstream. Even proposing fingerprints on drivers' licenses or making Social Security cards tamper-proof brought howls from politicians on both the left and right.
Now, some civil libertarians, including Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz, endorse national ID cards, while the Bush administration rejects the idea. Even without developing its own mechanisms for tracking citizens, the federal government can keep tabs on people by turning to the ocean of data gathered by private companies.
Internet sites, cable companies, and video stores know what we read and watch. Electronic highway payments indicate where we travel, while credit and ATM cards show how we spend our money. And since the attacks, private companies seem more willing to share that data with the government.
An association of the nation's largest financial firms announced a plan last month to let federal investigators run daily computer checks against customers' accounts. Opening that data may not trouble most law-abiding citizens. But wait until you're a party in court: Records of New York's EZPass electronic highway payment system may be subpoenaed in divorce cases to prove that spouses' nights were not spent at home.
The Orwellian state, Mr. Smith says, may be a public-private partnership. Or, with a willing public, the US may come to resemble Britain, which responded to Irish Republican Army bombings and street crimes by widely deploying closed-circuit television cameras and facial-recognition software.
Crime in the London borough of Newham went down 30 percent after police started scanning people on the street against a database of muggers, burglars, and car thieves.
"Residents of Newham welcome it with open arms," says Robert Lack, Newham's operations manager. "We have far more requests to put in the cameras and never have requests to take them out."