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U.S. Now Among World's Worst Surveillance Societies

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January 4, 2008

We’ve been warning for some time that we are dangerously close to turning into a surveillance society. We are far from alone, of course – many other countries are grappling with the same issues brought about by the information revolution, and the same political forces unleashed by 9/11. So how are we doing in defending our traditions of privacy in comparison to other countries?

Now we have a way of finding out. ACLU partner Privacy International has released a ranking of the world’s worst surveillance societies, in conjunction with the Electronic Privacy Information Center. It analyzed 47 countries’ surveillance and privacy policies across 14 categories.

It turns out that when it comes to surveillance, the U.S. is in the company of countries like China and Russia. Like those countries, the U.S. was in the dead-last, absolute worst category: an “endemic surveillance society.” That’s right, when it comes to pervasive surveillance and tracking, we’ve been lumped into the same group as countries like China, Russia and Singapore.

What put us over the top?

Naturally, the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping and attempts to sweet-talk the states into complying with the Real ID Act come to mind. But some of the lesser-known, but just-as-bad policies also contribute. A few of the report’s highlights, plus what the ACLU is doing about it:

  • “Extensive data-sharing programs across federal government and with private sector” (We just published a report on some of these programs and the places where this data is shared. See also our report on the Surveillance-Industrial Complex.)
  • “Spreading use of CCTV” (check out the ACLU of Northern California’s excellent recent report on surveillance cameras.)
  • “Congress approved presidential program of spying on foreign communications over U.S. networks…and now considering immunity for telephone companies, while government claims secrecy, thus barring any legal action” (The ACLU is leading efforts to keep immunity for telecommunications companies out of FISA legislation.)
  • “Weak protections of financial and medical privacy; plans spread for ‘rings of steel’ around cities to monitor movements of individuals” (The NYCLU has filed a Freedom of Information Act request demanding documents from the Department of Homeland Security and the New York Police Department to know the privacy implications of the city’s planned “Ring of Steel” surveillance system.)

The report also cites the FBI’s abuse of the National Security Letter (NSL) provision of the Patriot Act, which allows the bureau to demand customers’ personal and financial information from banks, phone companies and internet service providers. In September 2007, a federal judge decided in favor of the ACLU in our challenge to the NSL provisions of the Patriot Act, finding that NSLs violate the First Amendment and directly abuse the constitutional separation of powers.

To get our take on the U.S. surveillance society, check out our recent report “Even Bigger, Even Weaker: The Emerging Surveillance Society.”