U.S. President Barack Obama's administration received mixed grades from privacy groups after more than seven months in power, with the groups saying Obama has done little to change a surveillance-state environment created under former President George Bush.
The Obama administration gets a D overall for civil liberties, including a D- for electronic surveillance and a D for the way that state and local fusion centers run by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security collect data on U.S. residents, said Chip Pitts, president of the board for the Bill of Rights Defense Committee.
"This awesome technical power that now exists in the world, wedded with this war-on-terror paradigm ... really for the first time in human history poses a real threat of totalitarianism," Pitt said Wednesday at an event hosted by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and the Privacy Coalition. "Wherever you go these days, you're subjected to universal and ubiquitous surveillance."
For Obama, a former law school lecturer on constitutional rights, to be moving so slowly on civil rights issues, it's "almost inexcusable," Pitts said.
EPIC gave Obama better grades than some of the other groups it invited to speak. EPIC gave his administration an incomplete in the area of consumer privacy, saying it was concerned that Obama has not pushed for consumer privacy legislation. The group gave Obama a C+ for civil liberties, higher than Pitts' grade, but said it was disappointed that "there has not been more progress" in revising some leftover Bush programs such as fusion centers, and it gave Obama a B for cybersecurity, with the president's major speech on the issue and extensive review of security needs earlier this year.
The White House press office didn't immediately respond to a request for comments on the grades.
EPIC gave the president an A- in the area of medical privacy, saying the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a huge economic stimulus package Obama signed earlier this year, makes it easier for patients to control access to their electronic medical records. But Michael Ostrolenk, national coordinator of the Medical Privacy Coalition, gave the Obama administration a D+ for medical privacy.
Obama's push for universal electronic health records is antiprivacy, Ostrolenk said. The government is pushing people into adopting electronic records that can be easily shared, in many cases without consent of the patient, and it isn't the government's role to promote e-health records, he said.
Obama's stance on e-health records and medical privacy is "progressively worse" than the Bush and former President Bill Clinton administrations, Ostrolenk said. "It doesn't matter who's in office -- Republican or Democrat -- they're all bad," he said.
The economic stimulus package does prohibit the sale of medical records to third parties, but there are a number of exceptions, Ostrolenk added. It also includes a limited data breach notification provision, he said. "All those things are positive to a degree -- like putting a Band-Aid on a knee scrap while the patient bleeds out from a bullet wound to the chest," he said.