BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific

BBC News World Edition
    You are in: Technology  
News Front Page
Middle East
South Asia
Talking Point
Country Profiles
In Depth
BBC Sport
BBC Weather
 Friday, 17 January, 2003, 16:10 GMT
Is tech eating away at liberties?
Bill Thompson, BBC
Technology writer Bill Thompson worries about loss of freedom in the USA - and elsewhere

The citizens of the United States are finally waking up to the loss of personal freedom brought about by a combination of new technologies, laws which do not respect privacy, and companies seeking ever-wider knowledge of their customers.

They have noticed that they are heading for a future in which every move is monitored, every financial transaction recorded and every interaction with other people noted and analysed.

The information will be used by the FBI to look for terrorists, the police to look for criminals - and McDonalds to sell them more hamburgers.

In the end the US will be completely transparent and every move will be watched, just like the city of Yevgeny Zamyatin's dystopian novel, We.

Bigger monster

Whether people will actually do something to challenge this is, of course, debatable.

Following the destruction of the World Trade Center there is a general feeling within the US that civil liberties matter less than the prevention of terrorism, and the feverish anticipation of an attack on Iraq throughout the media makes it less likely that greater surveillance will be resisted.

Remains of the World Trade Center
US terror attacks have affected civil liberties
Bigger Monster, Weaker Chains, a new report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), describes in detail just what is happening.

Among the new techno-toys available to those who want to monitor our every move are cheap, disposable cameras for every street corner, identification tags in everything you buy that could allow market researchers to scan the content of your shopping basket from yards away, and small pilotless aircraft that can be used to spot faces in crowded streets or on demonstrations.

Tracking shopping habits

At the same time, the US Government continues to amass data on individuals and use it in whatever ways it likes.

Under the Computer Assisted Passenger Screening (Caps) programme, for example, the staff at an airport can find out the complete travel history and other personal information about every passenger.

If you've just bought a knife, or have written an article on your weblog arguing that George Bush is a lousy president, you can expect to be taken to one side for extra questioning.

The ACLU's main argument is that new technologies give governments and companies far more power than they have ever had before

Bill Thompson
Perhaps the most frightening scenario outlined in the ACLU report involves the use of radio frequency identification devices, the sort of security tags currently used in shops to protect books, CDs and other items.

These can be read at a distance, so if one was to be inserted in every driving licence or a national ID card then shops could, in principle, identify all their customers.

If you went into a shop and didn't buy anything, or even just stood looking in the window, then you could find yourself in a marketing database.

The ACLU's main argument is that new technologies give governments and companies far more power than they have ever had before.

They can track people, read their communications and monitor their actions.

The computing power, networks and data storage capacity is already there, and new programs are being written to link the many existing databases together.

Stripping away liberties

Under the slogan Total Information Awareness the Bush administration is already planning to do this.

While the technology is developing at an amazing rate, the law is unable to keep up.

New laws are passed to strip away old protections, as with the USA Patriot Act, which allows the FBI to monitor e-mails.

Old laws are undermined: while the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution forbids searches without a warrant, technical methods of monitoring people without their knowledge, like face identification systems, are not viewed as searches at all so go unregulated.

The ACLU believes that it is not too late to act.

I'm being watched and I don't like it very much

Bill Thompson
They want people to see the pattern of surveillance and monitoring that is emerging, and to resist new laws and new technologies.

They want new laws to deal with specific tools, like the use of cameras in public places.

They want the Fourth Amendment to be respected and used against these new technologies.

And they want a comprehensive US privacy law to protect personal data from abuse.

The situation is indeed serious, and not just in the US. Here in Europe, we have similar problems.

Being watched

A CCTV camera
CCTV cameras are all around us
As I write this in a café in Cambridge I am being watched by CCTV, and when I step out into the street I will be monitored by the city council's own system.

My mobile phone sits beside me, telling the network where I am.

And when I use my bank card to pay for food in a supermarket later this morning, the information will be added to a comprehensive database of my spending maintained by Nectar.

I'm being watched and I don't like it very much.

Some people think that the solution to data surveillance is technological, that we can fight back by encrypting our e-mails, using websites that allow anonymous surfing, not using credit cards and mobile phones, and not signing up for loyalty schemes.

Commentators like US journalist Declan McCullagh argue that the law cannot protect us and we should take up the electronic equivalent of arms and fight back against government.

This is a typically American and typically wrong-headed response to the problem.

The solution has to be political and has to involve better law.

No teeth

The ACLU seems to think European data protection law provides a good model, but they are sadly misinformed.

Our law has so few teeth that many companies feel free to disregard it, and the European Union was intimidated by the United States into allowing data on European citizens to be passed to US companies despite the lack of local data protection.

When identity cards are introduced we will find the Data Protection Act offers no real protection against their abuse by government.

It is surely time for us to think seriously about privacy, but instead of trying to fix existing laws we should acknowledge that the nature of privacy in a networked world has changed so fundamentally that we have to start from scratch.

Then, perhaps, the law can overtake the technologies at last.

Send us your comments:


Your E-mail address:



Disclaimer: The BBC will put up as many of your comments as possible but we cannot guarantee that all e-mails will be published. The BBC reserves the right to edit comments that are published.

Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.
Bill Thompson guides you through the world of technology

See also:

16 Jul 02 | Americas
31 May 02 | Science/Nature
24 Jan 02 | Science/Nature
14 Jan 03 | Technology
24 Dec 02 | England
Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more Technology stories are at the foot of the page.

 E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Technology stories

© BBC ^^ Back to top

News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East |
South Asia | UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature |
Technology | Health | Talking Point | Country Profiles | In Depth |