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Privacy under Surveillance
Jul 1, 2002

Privacy is a fundamental human right in diverse regions and cultures. It has become one of the modern age's most important human rights issues. Even though nearly every country has a right to privacy in its constitution, it also is protected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and in many other international human rights treaties.(1)

However, the issue of privacy versus freedom of information has been with us forever. In world history, the recognition of privacy has deep roots.(2) The Qur'an (3) and the Bible (4) contain numerous references to privacy. Jewish law has long recognized the concept of freedom from being watched.(5) There also were protections in classical Greece and ancient China.

Privacy defined

Privacy is the interest that individuals have in sustaining a personal space free from interference by other people and organizations. It is a balancing act between the needs of individuals and society's demands. There is a fine balance between the need for individuals to protect their privacy and the contending pressures of business, government, and the exigencies of modern life.

There are three main issues and areas of concern: How much other people may access our personal information, how much access should we have to our private information that is held by others, and how much access we should have to public information. Privacy, a topic of special concern to social scientists, is a complicated issue that cannot be discussed fully within this short article.

Even with the adoption of legal and other protections, privacy violations remain a concern. Beyond these obvious aspects of privacy, several important trends are contributing to privacy invasion, such as globalization (removing limitations to the flow of data), convergence (leading to the elimination of technological barriers between systems), and multimedia.

Types of privacy

Intuitively, privacy can be categorized into four separate but related concepts.

Privacy of communications or interception, which involves individuals desiring to communicate with other individuals and organizations through secure and private communications, whether these be mail, telephone, e-mail, or otherwise.

Privacy of the person, which is concerned with the integrity of one's physical body and protection of one's physical self against such invasive procedures as compulsory immunization, blood transfusion without consent, genetic tests, compulsory provision of bodily fluids and tissue samples, and drug testing.

Territorial privacy, which involves setting limits on intrusion and all aspects of behavior into the domestic and other environments, but especially with regard to various sensitive matters in both private and in public places (e.g., searches, sexual preferences and habits, political activities, religious practices, video surveillance, and ID checks).

Information privacy or privacy of personal data, meaning the establishment of rules governing personal data collection and handling. People claim that personal data on credit history, as well as medical and government records, should not be available automatically to other individuals and organizations.

The volume of instantly recorded information based on credit card usage, Internet visits, hospital or pharmacy visits, filing tax returns renting video tapes and so on'all of which can be accessed by authorized and unauthorized persons'has changed the speed and ease with which others can survey much of one's personal life and activities.(6)

Types of surveillance

Identification. With the advent of microprocessor technology, such a card's type, function, and integrity vary enormously. ID cards could embed biometric information, defined as the process of collecting, processing, and storing details of a person's physical characteristics in order to identify and authenticate.

In recent years, the underlying technology interests governments and companies because, unlike other forms of ID, they now can include such new information as digital fingerprinting, handprint scans, hand geometry, thumb scans, facial recognition technologies, voice authentication devices, electronic retinal scans, and such other biological markers as DNA identification.

Thus security personnel also will be able to identify more accurately those people accessing buildings, computers, or national borders.

Communications. All companies that develop digital telephone switches, cellular and satellite phones, and other developing communication technologies build in surveillance capabilities.(7) Nearly every country has some form of eavesdropping capability as regards telephone, fax, and telex communications for the use of law enforcement or intelligence agencies. 

Internet and black boxes. Internet surveillance is a revolutionary new technology that allows remote monitoring of an e-mail address and the contents of an e-mail message.(7)

A related effort for enhancing government control of the Internet and promoting surveillance is being conducted in the name of preventing 'cyber-crime,' 'information warfare,' or 'protecting critical infrastructures.' A number of countries are demanding that ISPs install 'black boxes' that can monitor system traffic.

In short, black boxes contain specialized software programs that run in a computer hooked into the network at a location where it can monitor system traffic. These sniffers can monitor the entire data stream by searching for such key words, phrases, or strings as net addresses or e-mail accounts. Network administrators can take screen shots in real time or on a schedule, by time and day or user, and store them for future review; run any program installed on a remote PC; shut down or restart any remote workstation; and view a list of applications stored on all network PCs, the frequency of Internet usage, and more.

Electronic Commerce. As consumers surf and engage in routine online transactions, they leave behind a trail of personal details, often without any idea that they are doing so. Corporations monitor the huge amount of personal information (e.g., e-mail address linked to messages posted on mailing lists, from newsgroups or domain name registration data, individual surfing habits, deciphering how individual work, and building detailed profiles of where they shop and what they like to buy).

The perceived value of this kind of information is behind the stock-market valuations of many dotcom companies. Marketers and advertisers use cookies to track personal preferences as the most pervasive tracking technology. The cookie is a very small text file containing an ID number downloaded from a Web site by your browser and placed on a user's hard drive.

Television and T-commerce

The new field of interactive digital television has a huge potential. Users can send and receive e-mail, browse the Internet, buy goods and services, and play games through their television. The industry anticipates that such T-commerce (television commerce) will enable viewers to make impulsive purchases based on what their favorite star is wearing or on individually tailored ads appearing between the plots of their favorite shows or sporting events.

Audio. Audio surveillance allows people to eavesdrop (and/or record) conversations taking place at a particular location or on a particular telephone line. Advances in technology are making it easier and cheaper to conduct covert audio surveillance. These devices come in many shapes and sizes: from micro-engineered transmitters the size of an office staple to devices no bigger than a cigarette packet that can transmit video and sound signals for miles. A magic item of modern ingenuity, each audio stream is captured and analyzed on the fly, allowing intelligence agents to perform voice-pattern matches during an intercept. It also provides the names of speakers and access to their dossiers.

Video. By now, the use of video surveillance cameras, known as closed circuit television (CCTV), to monitor public and private spaces has grown to unprecedented levels. Most towns and cities are moving to CCTV surveillance of public areas. This technology enables the observation of individuals without their knowledge at the ATM, in stores, elevators, restaurants, school hallways, housing estates, car parks, and when stopped by police in patrol cars.

In addition to the obvious security applications, video surveillance technology is being used to measure traffic flow, detect accidents on highways, monitor pedestrian congestion in public spaces, compile consumer demographics in shopping malls and amusement parks, log routine maintenance tasks at nuclear facilities, and count endangered species. The numerous military applications include patrolling national borders, measuring refugee flows in troubled areas, monitoring peace treaties, and providing secure perimeters around bases and embassies. Their use on private property is also becoming popular.(8)