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Thursday, 4 October 2007

A world under surveillance

From surveillance cameras to data pirating, every bit of life is scanned and stored to meet economic and political agendas. Until awareness is heightened and proper legislation put in place, our right to privacy will continue to be violated, said privacy activists at the Privacy Rights in a World under Surveillance conference held last weekend at Montreal’s Sheraton Centre.

An explosion of new technologies that enable the tracking and monitoring of individuals such as Radio Frequency Identification (RFID), biometric devices and Smart Cards, has moved faster than any legal system can adapt, and raises questions about whether legal privacy regimes are outmoded.

RFID is the modern model of the espionage tool first used in the Soviet Union in 1946. Today, the RFID chip can be inserted into passports, vehicles, animals, even into inventory systems. With global tracking boxes built into cars, and workplace monitoring devices that record everything you do, data mining is here to stay. Some experts believe the human microchip is not far behind.

The Implanted Microchip, which tracks fingerprints, footprints, eye scan, DNA Genotype, financial status, and personal history, could eventually be compulsory, where nobody will be able to buy or sell without it.

DNA snatching has already begun to affect innocent people in the UK, said GeneWatch’s Helen Wallace. “A football landed on a grandmother’s yard, and the police showed up at her door and accused her of stealing, so they took her to the station to get her DNA.” Police in the UK generally oppose this system, Wallace said, precisely because it demonizes and criminalizes the innocent.

History shows that technology is unstoppable and generally trends to destroying civil liberties, said Julius Grey, Canada’s leading constitutional and civil liberties attorney. “It’s a totalitarian democracy. The new capitalism defuses power, where everyone uses technology to further their own agenda.”

The right to privacy is deeply rooted in our historical, political and legal traditions. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) article 12 states that no one should be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks on his honour or reputation. Everyone has the right to protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

From reader technologies that track our habits, to the surveillance of movement and profiling of passengers through Passenger Name Records (PNR) and entry-exit schemes, our right to privacy is on the verge of becoming obsolete.

In Britain, surveillance is a paradox, said Statewatch’s Ben Hayes. The EU and U.S. agreements in the 1974 Privacy Act only cover U.S. citizens. “The EU is starting to resemble the Soviet Union, where our social and material lives are under surveillance,” Hayes added.

Maureen Webb from The International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group (ICLMG) said since 9/11, the U.S. is demanding an integrated security environment where the population is biometrically registered, tracked and monitored. “Citizens’ information is stored for 100 years, and shared by agencies, without warrants, treating the entire population as suspects.”

Aside from monitoring the “bad” guy, information is stored in monster database machines such as Lexus Nexus, where U.S. agencies can purchase the data to carry out marketing research at a corporate level, and monitor citizens that pose a potential threat to the government, she said.

In the past, we worried about not having enough data memory, and now we are threatened by the implications of data storage breaching citizens’ rights to privacy on a global scale, said Jonathan Bamford, assistant commissioner and director of data protection development in the office of the UK’s information commissioner.

Toshimanu Ogura from Toyama University People’s Plan Study Group in Japan, fears we are transitioning from a democracy to a secret world. “We need a campaign to cancel information from governments and corporations. We need anonymity rights — data protection is not enough.”

One way to combat the privacy invasion, he said, is to stop giving out personal information, and start asking the question, “Why do you need my information?”

Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering’s (CASPIAN) Katherine Albrecht said people need to get involved and change the nature of the privacy rhetoric.

“What if Hitler used RFIDs? Don’t give governments unchecked power.” The Suburban