Privacy, security sides clash

The U.S. government is enjoying "a golden age of surveillance," says Jim Dempsey. From financial records to fingerprint data, federal agencies "are choking on information." And in the name of homeland security, Congress is increasing the government's ability to gather information.

But accumulating more data may not improve security, warns Dempsey, who is deputy director of the Center for Democracy and Technology. "The difficulty isn't in collecting information, it is in analyzing it," he said. Giving the government more authority to collect information is likely to dramatically erode the privacy rights of Americans, Dempsey said during a security forum March 15 in Washington, D.C.

That view is too alarmist, argues Robert Atkinson. Greater use of technology, from facial-recognition cameras to smart identification cards, can increase security without greatly affecting privacy, he contends. And smart card technology can provide a multibillion-dollar boost to the U.S. economy, said Atkinson, vice president of the Progressive Policy Institute, which hosted the forum.

Atkinson is urging Congress to require states to issue smart ID cards that would contain encoded biometric data about the cardholder and security features to prevent counterfeiting. The cards could also serve as credit cards and be used for signing transactions with digital signatures.

Use of smart cards would be voluntary, not mandatory.

For Atkinson, the debate over using more technology — and permitting more information collecting — boils down to whether you trust government agencies not to misuse the information they collect. A survey on the subject shows that more than half of Americans do, he said.

"The notion that there is rampant abuse or the potential for rampant abuse is overblown," he said.

Dempsey is not convinced that more data and better technology will achieve greater security. After all, he said, all of the Sept. 11 terrorists had to show "biometric ID cards" — that is, driver's licenses with photos — to board the planes they hijacked.

If they had ID cards with information such as fingerprints, eye scans or digitized DNA samples, the result would have been the same, he said. "The problem is verifying the identity of the person who is applying for an ID," he said.

Dempsey is especially critical of the Patriot Act, which was passed in October in response to the Sept. 11 attacks. The law increases the government's ability to collect a wide array of personal information, tap computer transmissions, authorize wiretaps and conduct secret searches.

"The Patriot Act presumes that if you pour more data in, the picture will become clearer," but experience with government agencies does not support that presumption, Dempsey said.

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