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"Bigger Monster, Weaker Chains: The Growth of an American Surveillance Society (01/15/2003)" downloadable from
Is the US Turning Into a Surveillance Society?
ACLU Report: Bigger Monster, Weaker Chains: The Growth of an American Surveillance Society
"Big Brother" is No Longer a Fiction, ACLU Warns in New Report
Feature on Total Information Awareness program
What's Wrong With Public Video Surveillance?
Feature on USA PATRIOT Act
5 Reasons Not to Create A National ID Card
Feature on Face Recognition Technology
Protecting Financial Privacy
Big Brother is no longer a fiction
The United States is at risk of turning into a full-fledged surveillance society. A new ACLU report, Bigger Monster, Weaker Chains: The Growth of an American Surveillance Society provides an overview of the many ways in which we are drifting toward a surveillance society, and what we need to do about it.
There are two simultaneous developments behind this trend:
The tremendous explosion in surveillance-enabling technologies, including databases, computers, cameras, sensors, wireless networks, implantable microchips, GPS, and biometrics. The fact is, Orwell’s vision of “Big Brother”is now, for the first time, technologically possible.
Even as this technological surveillance monster grows in our midst, we are weaking the chains that keep it from trampling our privacy – loosening regulations on government surveillance, watching passively as private surveillance grows unchecked, and contemplating the introduction of tremendously powerful new surveillance infrastructures that will tie all this information together.
The good news is that the drift toward a surveillance society can be stopped. As the American people realize that each new development is part of this bigger picture, they will give more and more weight to protecting privacy, and support the measures we need to preserve our freedom. Unfortunately, right now the big picture is grim. There are numerous disturbing developments:
Surveillance video cameras are rapidly spreading throughout the public arena, with new cameras being placed not only in some of our most sacred public spaces, but on ordinary public streets all over America. And video surveillance may be on the verge of an even greater revolution due to advances in technology like Face Recognition Technology and new attempts to build centralized monitoring facilities.
An insidious new type of surveillance is becoming possible that is just as intrusive as video surveillance – what we might call “data surveillance.” As more and more of our activities leave behind “data trails,” it will soon be possible to combine information from different sources to recreate an individual’s activities with such detail that it becomes no different from being followed around all day by a detective with a video camera.
The Commodification of Information. Today, any consumer activity that is not being tracked and recorded is increasingly being viewed by businesses as money left on the table.
Internet Privacy. On the Internet, our activities can be recorded down to the last mouse click.
Financial privacy. The once-firm tradition of privacy and discretion by financial institutions has collapsed, and financial companies today routinely put the details of their customers’ financial lives up for sale.
New Data-Gathering Technologies. In the near future, new technologies will continue to fill out the mosaic of information it is possible to collect on every individual; examples include cell phone location data, biometrics, computer “black boxes” in cars that “tattle” on their owners, and location-tracking computer chips.
Medical & Genetic Privacy. Medical privacy has collapsed, and genetic information is about to become a central part of health care. Unlike other medical information, genetic data is a unique combination: both difficult to keep confidential and extremely revealing about us.
The biggest threat to privacy comes from the government. Many Americans are naturally concerned about corporate surveillance, but only the government has the power to take away liberty.
Government Databases. The government’s access to personal information begins with the thousands of databases it maintains on the lives of Americans and others.
Communications Surveillance. The government performs an increasing amount of eavesdropping on electronic communications. Examples of the new type of surveillance include the FBI’s controversial "Carnivore" program and the international eavesdropping program codenamed Echelon.
The “Patriot” Act. Just six weeks after the September 11 attacks, a panicked Congress passed the "USA PATRIOT Act, an overnight revision of the nation’s surveillance laws that vastly expanded the government’s authority to spy on its own citizens and reduced checks and balances on those powers such as judicial oversight.
Loosened Domestic Spying Regulations. In May 2002, Attorney General John Ashcroft issued new guidelines that significantly increase the freedom of federal agents to conduct surveillance on American individuals and organizations.
The Synergies of Surveillance
Multiple surveillance techniques added together are greater than the sum of their parts. The growing piles of data being collected on Americans represent an enormous invasion of privacy, but our privacy has actually been protected by the fact that all this information still remains scattered across many different databases. The real threat to privacy will come when the government, landlords, employers, or other powerful forces gain the ability to draw together all this information. Several programs now being discussed or implemented would advance this goal:
"Total Information Awareness." This Pentagon program aims at giving officials easy, one-stop access to every possible government and commercial database in the world.
CAPS II. A close cousin of TIA is also being created in the context of airline security: Computer Assisted Passenger Screening, or CAPS, which involves collecting a variety of personal information on airline travelers in order to flag those deemed suspicious for special screening.
National ID Cards. Combinging new technologies such as biometrics with an enormously powerful database, national ID Cards would become an overarching means of facilitating the tracking and surveillance of Americans.
What We Must Do
If we do not take steps to control and regulate surveillance to bring it into conformity with our values, we will find ourselves being tracked, analyzed, profiled, and flagged in our daily lives to a degree we can scarcely imagine today. We will be forced into an impossible struggle to conform to the letter of every rule, law, and guideline, lest we create ammunition for enemies in the government or elsewhere. Our transgressions will become permanent Scarlet Letters that follow us throughout our lives, visible to all and used by the government, landlords, employers, insurance companies and other powerful parties to increase their leverage over average people.
Four main goals need to be attained to prevent this dark potential from being realized:
Change the Terms of the Debate. We are being confronted with fundamental choices about what sort of society we want to live in, but unless the terms of the debate are changed to focus on the big picture instead of individual privacy stories, too many Americans will never even recognize the choice we face, and a decision against preserving privacy will be made by default.
Enact Comprehensive Privacy Laws. The US has an inconsistent, patchwork approach to privacy regulation, and we need to develop a baseline of simple and clear privacy protections that crosses all sectors of our lives and give it the force of law.
Pass New Laws For New Technologies. Laws must also be developed to rein in particular new technologies such as surveillance cameras, location-tracking devices, and biometrics. Surveillance cameras, for example, must be subject to force-of-law rules covering important details like when they will be used, how long images will be stored, and when and with whom they will be shared.
Revive the Fourth Amendment. The Fourth Amendment, the primary Constitutional bulwark against Government invasion of our privacy, is in desperate need of a revival. The Fourth Amendment must be adapted to new technologies; the Framers never expected the Constitution to be read exclusively in terms of the circumstances of 1791.
Privacy & Technology : General - Press Releases View All
GA Supreme Court Strikes Down Fornication Law (01/13/2003)
ATLANTA -- In a case argued by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Georgia Supreme Court today unanimously struck down the state’s fornication law, saying that the government may not "reach into the bedroom of a private residence and criminalize the private, noncommercial, consensual acts of two persons legally capable of consenting" to sexual activity.
ACLU Announces Collaboration With Rep. Bob Barr; Says Conservative Congressman Will Consult on Privacy Issues (11/25/2002)
WASHINGTON - In a surprise announcement that comes on the heels of news that the outgoing Majority Leader, Richard Armey (R-TX), is considering consulting for the American Civil Liberties Union, the group said today that it also plans to hire conservative firebrand Bob Barr (R-GA) to work on informational and data privacy issues
NYCLU Urges City Agency to Reject First-Ever Fingerprint Plan for Subsidized Housing Tenants (11/04/2002)
NEW YORK--In a letter sent today to the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, the New York Civil Liberties Union urged the agency to reject a proposal to impose a fingerprint identification system for tenants at a subsidized housing complex.
ACLU Says Manufacturer is Blaming the Messenger for Failure of Face-Recognition Technology (05/29/2002)
NEW YORK - In an apparent attack on the American Civil Liberties Union, a manufacturer of face-recognition systems has issued a news release charging that “special interests” have made “misleading and incorrect” statements about the technology. In doing so, the manufacturer, Visionics Corporation, has resorted to blaming the messenger for the inadequacies of its product.
ACLU Says Standardized Driver's License Proposals Walk and Talk Like National ID Schemes (05/03/2002)
WASHINGTON -- Concerned with the increasing interest by the Bush Administration and some in Congress in a series of proposals to standardize driver's licenses across the country, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) today decried the schemes, calling them de facto national IDs and a serious threat to privacy, liberty and safety.
Other Information : Press Releases
ACLU, Eagle Forum Call National ID Driver's Licenses Ineffective in Fight Against Terrorism (09/05/2002)
WASHINGTON - The American Civil Liberties Union and the conservative Eagle Forum today warned a House subcommittee that any attempt to standardize driver's licenses nationally would be ineffective in fighting terrorism and would lead to a de facto national ID card system.
Privacy & Technology : General - Newswires View All
Frito-Lay Cover-up on Tainted Chips (07/22/2001)
California County Plans to Fingerprint Homeless (10/10/2000)
High Court Rules: Please Don't Squeeze the Passengers' Luggage (04/17/2000)
Privacy & Technology : General - Publications View All
Bigger Monster, Weaker Chains: The Growth of an American Surveillance Society (01/15/2003)
Americans need to step back from the daily drum of privacy stories and absorb the big picture: the United States is at risk of turning into a full-fledged surveillance society. The fact is, Orwell’s vision of "Big Brother" is now, for the first time, technologically possible.
Privacy & Technology : General - Legislative Documents View All
Letter to the Senate Commerce Committee on S. 2949, the 'Aviation Security Improvement Act' (09/19/2002)
Letter to the Senate Urging Opposition to the Conference Report on H.R. 3009 “The Andean Trade Preference Act,” which Undermines Civil (07/31/2002)
Sign-on Letter to the House Urging Opposition to H.R. 4633, the “Driver’s License Modernization Act of 2002” (06/27/2002)
Letter to Senate Regarding Section 1143 of the Daschle Substitute Amendment No. 3386 to the Andean Trade Preference Expansion Act (05/03/2002)
Testimony of Associate Director Gregory Nojeim and Legislative Counsel Katie Corrigan on H.R. 4561, the Federal Agency Protection of Privacy Act, Before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law (05/01/2002)
Privacy & Technology : General - General Items View All
Memorandum to Congress on President Bush's Order Establishing Military Tribunals (05/06/2002)
Privacy & Technology : General - Additional Resources View All
How the USA-Patriot Act Expands Law Enforcement "Sneak and Peek" Warrants (03/07/2002)
The final version of the anti-terrorism legislation, the Uniting and Strengthening America By Providing Appropriate Tools Required To Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (H.R. 3162, the "USA PATRIOT Act") would allow law enforcement agencies to delay giving notice when they conduct a search. This means that the government could enter a house, apartment or office with a search warrant when the occupant was away, search through her property and take photographs, and in some cases seize physical property and electronic communications, and not tell her until later. This provision would mark a sea change in the way search warrants are executed in the United States.
ACLU Letter to Congress on President Bush's Order Establishing Military Tribunals (03/07/2002)
We are writing to ask you to exercise your oversight responsibilities and reclaim your proper constitutional role with regard to President Bush's "Military Order" of November 13, 2001, permitting the use of military tribunals against any non-citizen accused of terrorism.
Send a FREE FAX to Defense Secretery Donald Rumsfeld (03/05/2002)
ACLU Opposes Use of Face Recognition Software in Airports Due to Ineffectiveness and Privacy Concerns (02/21/2002)
The terrorist attacks of September 11 have led airports and other institutions to look for new ways of improving security, many of which the American Civil Liberties Union supports.
The Uniform Driver's License as a National ID (02/21/2002)
First, let me thank you for inviting me here this morning to to address the issue of uniform state driver's licenses. It speaks well for your organization's willingness to consider public input and input from diverse viewpoints that you have invited me here to present our views on the AAMVA's proposal.
Privacy & Technology : General - Resources View All
Legislative Briefing Kit on Electronic Monitoring (03/11/2002)
Through advanced computer technology, employers can now continuously monitor employees' actions without the employee even knowing he or she is being "watched." The computer's eye is unblinking and ever-present. Sophisticated software allows every minute of the day to be recorded and evaluated. Human workers are being tracked like machines by machines:
Links to Other Privacy Sites (02/21/2002)
The following sites provide comprehensive or unique resources relating to the work of the ACLU in this issue area. While some of these sites are operated by organizations that work frequently in coalition with the ACLU, the sites may also include materials on positions we do not share. To report a broken or relocated link, or to suggest a site for inclusion on this page, use the feedback button at the bottom of this page.
Frequently Asked Questions on the National Census (03/11/2000)
However, there is some conflict between the right of privacy and the government's need for information on which to base legislation and programs to support and implement other fundamental rights, such as freedom from discrimination. Members of the public have legitimate concerns about the civil liberties implications of the national census. Foremost among those concerns are whether the census violates privacy rights and whether the government should be allowed to levy fines against those who refuse to fill out the form.
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