Security trumps privacy in new order
- By William Matthews
- Sep 24, 2001
Federal agents continue to comb e-mail logs in their search for evidence in the Sept. 11 terrorist strikes, and Internet service providers are happy to acknowledge they are helping.
Security experts are touting the benefits of facial-recognition cameras for use in airports—the same cameras that generated outrage last year when they were used to compare the faces of Super Bowl fans with a database of criminals' faces.
The attacks on the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon shattered America's sense of security and may have profoundly changed Americans' appraisal of the value of privacy.
"It's a different world regarding privacy," said Harold Krent, a law professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology. "Anytime there is a cataclysmic event of this magnitude, the balance between privacy and security of the country is altered."
Carl Howe, a research director at Forrester Research Inc., foresees a fundamental shift. "Surveillance and personal interrogation that used to be considered an invasion of privacy will now be accepted to guarantee national security," he said. "Expect government offices, airports, train stations and building lobbies to include both video cameras and armed police to interrogate lingerers."
Even some privacy advocates say the terrorist attacks have altered the privacy equation at least temporarily.
After a year of battling Carnivore, the FBI's Internet snooping technology, one government privacy advocate conceded, "We'll look the other way on Carnivore for this one event." The FBI is expected to use Carnivore—now called DCS 1000—to search e-mail traffic for messages related to the airliner hijackings and terrorist attacks.
"We're not going to get in the way of the FBI. This isn't a peacetime situation," said the advocate, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "They're not looking for deadbeat dads."
A widely held objection to Carnivore is that it can be used to intercept all e-mail traffic, which privacy advocates say treats all e-mailers as suspects. The FBI says it uses the technology for much more targeted searches.
Privacy vs. security is always a delicate balance, said Jim Harper, editor of Privacilla.org, a Web site devoted to privacy issues.
In July, Harper appeared before a House subcommittee to denounce the growing use of red-light cameras, calling them "only the first installation of the Big Brother infrastructure." Harper worries that the cameras deprive people of the right to face their accusers and may be used to conduct illegal searches and monitoring.
But Sept. 13, Harper said he might not object to the use of facial-recognition cameras in airports and other public places. If used properly, the cameras probably pass constitutional muster, he said. Still, the cameras may be easy to misuse, he warned. "If they are used to track people," for example, that could be a violation of privacy, he said.
But such tracking is routine in other countries, Krent said. "In England, cameras are used in a number of major cities, not just for face recognition, but to monitor any kind of devious behavior."
Now, Americans "may be more willing to barter away aspects of our privacy to enhance our security—but that's understandable," he said.
"The events of [the week of Sept. 11] have pushed the pendulum away from civil liberties and toward security and surveillance," Howe said.
But technology can enhance as well as erode privacy. For example, encryption can make e-mail messages undecipherable, and anony.mizers can make Web surfing untrackable. And in some instances, a change in appearance, such as facial hair, can foil facial-recognition cameras, according to security experts.
"I would say the privacy game isn't over," Krent said.