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Americans Receptive to Increased Surveillance For Security - 2001-12-04


According to opinion polls taken in the weeks since the September 11 attacks, most Americans want surveillance increased in public places. U.S. firms have come up with a host of new technologies to help out.

There are X-ray machines that can see through clothing to search for hidden weapons. There are devices that can detect minute traces of drugs or explosives in baggage. There are scanners can capture faces in digital images and compare them instantaneously to a database of criminal's photos.

Are the same Americans who worried one-year ago that Internet companies were invading their privacy now ready to let themselves be publicly X-rayed, photographed and searched?

Jim Lewis of Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies says the answer is "yes." "People are now willing to give up their privacy for security. I am not sure people are willing to give up their privacy to companies seeking to make money off them. That part has not changed. Are you willing to have your face scanned to make sure you are not a terrorist? Most Americans support that. Having some company track your online behavior so they can make a profit on it? Most people still do not support that," he said.

Virginia Beach Police officer Greg Mullen has said people are more willing to give up their privacy for security if they understand how the technology works and feel they can control how it is used. The Virginia Beach city council voted last month to install a face recognition system to monitor people passing along beachfront properties.

Before the system was approved, Greg Mullen has said, citizens groups met to establish safeguards. "We brought in people from the technology areas. We brought in people from the civil rights side and opened it up for people to come in and learn about the system so they would not be afraid of it. It is our responsibility as a public organization that we educate people and try to make them comfortable with things before we enter into using them," he said.

Virginia Beach residents imposed controls on who would see the surveillance data and how it would be used. Jim Lewis says that kind of citizen involvement is critical. "Scanning for terrorists, hey everyone thinks that is a great idea. Suppose we scan for violent criminals. Most people would support that. Suppose we scan for parking ticket violators. Hmmm. How will we limit the data generated by scanning? How will we limit its use? That is what we are going to have to figure out: Where do we draw the line?" he said.

Those are the questions communities should answer before deploying surveillance technology, Jim Lewis says. At a time when technology's capabilities are rapidly expanding, it is more important than ever to set boundaries.