NewScientist.com news service11:05 07 January 2008
The US, the UK, China and Russia are "endemic surveillance societies", according to a recent study examining privacy protection around the world that gave the four nations the lowest possible rating.
The 10th annual report showed a global increase in surveillance and a decline in privacy safeguards during 2007, as concerns over immigration and border control continued to dominate national policy agendas.
The 2007 International Privacy Ranking, published by advocacy groups Privacy International of the UK and the Electronic Privacy Information Center in the US gave Britain the "black" or "endemic" ranking for the second year in a row.
Gus Hosein, of Privacy International, justified the UK's low ranking, noting that the country has the world's largest network of surveillance cameras, plans for national identity cards rich with personal and biometric information, and little government accountability when personal information is lost.
"This government has access to its people and technology that China doesn't," says Hosein. "It really is that bad here."
The US fell to the bottom rung for the first time this year due to increasing government surveillance and decreasing federal oversight.
Political shifts in Congress that were expected to bolster personal protection had little effect. The Bush administration was specifically called out for tapping international phone calls and emails without a warrant for those with suspected links to terrorists.
The only country judged to have "adequate safeguards" was Greece, a country with relatively strong privacy rights and an independent Data Privacy Authority. It has the power to impose fines or even imprison government officials for breaches in personal information procedures.
"They are by no means great, but nowadays mediocre is what passes for amazing," says Hosein of Greece's privacy safeguards.
Part of the problem may be technology advancing faster than government safeguards. "There is a rapid expansion of technologies for surveillance, identification, and border control and a much slower adoption of policies to safeguard privacy and security," says Marc Rotenberg, of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
Despite their low ratings, the US and UK do not compromise privacy as much as China or Russia, says John Palfrey, of the OpenNet Initiative, an international academic research group that monitors government internet filtering and surveillance. Yet, he is troubled by the way governments can anonymously monitor internet traffic.
"Even democratic societies don't make clear to their citizens how comprehensively governments reach into the private lives of individuals," says Palfrey. "We have no way of knowing what our government can come to know about us as private citizens."
In a related blow to free speech, China announced new internet censorship policies last week that will severely restrict all video sharing websites such as YouTube that are not state controlled.