Are Privacy Expectations Changing?
When I checked into the New Yorker Hotel for the annual conference on Computers, Freedom and Privacy in New York recently, the front desk clerk took my driver's license and made a copy.
"Why did you do that?" I asked.
"It's hotel policy, since September 11," he offered.
"You do realize that there is a conference taking place here on privacy, don't you?" I asked.
The man just shrugged, slowly loosening the drawstrings of his practiced front desk grin.
That was the first clue that this year's CFP conference, which had promised to be a rebel-rousing affair focusing on
Indeed, on the conference's first day Barbara Simons, cochair of the Association for Computing Machinery's U.S. Public Policy Committee, asked attendees sitting in the faded glory of the New Yorker's Grand Ballroom how many of them had had their driver's licenses photocopied at the front desk and how many protested.
The latter group was a mere quarter of the first. While this percentage may not appear particularly discouraging, it seemed a poor start given that the audience was filled with some of the most educated and opinionated advocates of privacy.
Still, many would say that this was a small matter compared with the privacy threats presented by legislation such as the USA Patriot Act,
George Radwanski, Canada's Privacy Commissioner, might disagree. The little things add up, Radwanski warned.
"In the end these incremental threats [to our privacy] are what we should fear most," Radwanski said.
Since September 11, 2001, the U.S. government has passed legislation expanding authorities' wiretap and electronic surveillance powers, put in place a passenger profiling system, and begun evaluating a Total Information Awareness system that would collect and store information on individuals that could then be mined in an effort to detect terrorist activities.
Privacy advocates attending CFP feared that all these individual measures are adding up to a serious threat to citizens' privacy.
Radwanski noted that the
Heather Mac Donald, a fellow at the conservative think tank the Manhattan Institute, called opposition to the new measures "knee jerk," however. She added that if the government wouldn't do anything to heighten citizens' security, no one would.
"Not a single change since September 11 hasn't met hysterical, vociferous cries from the left against it," she said.
Yet no one in the room seemed even close to hysterical. Even when Barry Steinhardt, director of the Technology and Liberty program at the American Civil Liberties Union, commandeered the microphone during one session to announce that a large black backpack had been left in the middle of the lobby, unattended, no one stirred.
Out in the lobby, a security officer cautiously approached the backpack, feeling the outside pockets, and peeking in the top. At the front desk another staffer asked if the hotel had any masks and plastic gloves on hand.
Everyone else went about their business.
It seemed that when it came to security measures and threats to individuals' privacy, both had become too common to elicit alarmed responses.