Can Privacy Rights Survive?

When it comes to privacy, ever more intrusive collection technologies are being rolled out, such as online tracking mechanisms, spyware, face recognition systems, location tracking devices and even thermal imaging, a Senate Commerce Committee panel was told today.

And, Jason Catlett, president of Junkbusters.com and a visiting fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, said in a written statement that “advances in ‘cloaking’ technologies are always outstripped by advances in collection technologies, both in capabilities and degree of adoption.”

Also today, the American Civil Liberties Union and House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-TX, issued a joint statement calling on all state and local governments to stop using cameras and the Internet to intrude on citizens before privacy in America “is so diminished that it becomes nothing more than a fond memory.”

Armey said he will ask the General Accounting Office to study the extent to which the federal government is funding computerized facial-recognition technologies of the type in operation in Colorado and in Tampa, FL and used at this year’s Super Bowl.

In Colorado, the Department of Motor Vehicles is moving ahead with a plan approved by the Legislature to create a database containing computerized three-dimensional facial maps of all those applying for driver’s licenses. Used in conjunction with facial-recognition software, for example, the Colorado database could allow the public movements of every citizen in the state to be identified, tracked, recorded and stored, the ACLU said.

In his decidedly downbeat testimony in Washington today, Catlett said that “each week brings another Love Canal of privacy to light.”

“Privacy will not survive without strong acts of will by democratic government,” he said. “… it is up to you (Congress) to require all organizations that handle information about people to treat it fairly. Unless you do that, our society will not enjoy the benefits that our technology and economy could deliver, and we will be robbed of something that is very necessary to a dignified human existence: privacy.”

The complete text of his testimony is available here.

Meanwhile, opt-in email marketing company NetCreations Inc. issued a statement for the hearing, making a case for its form of privacy protection.

“It is our firm belief that opt-in does more than protect the rights of the list members – it also makes the best business sense: opt-in lists reach a more targeted audience more quickly and cost effectively.”

On Tuesday, the Privacy Leadership Initiative (PLI) said new research shows that the American public sees a role for business and government in privacy protection, “but consumers clearly view themselves as the first line of defense in the escalating battle for control of their personal information.”

The study, conducted for PLI by Harris Interactive, was expanded from a beta survey last December, and is intended to track changes and trends with regard to consumer privacy experiences and expectations.

“People are telling government and industry that they want the most control and responsibility for protecting their privacy, and that they are prepared to exercise that responsibility when given the tools to do so,” said John Kamp, acting executive director of the PLI.

The study found that consumers are increasingly paying attention to online privacy statements (82 percent in April vs. 73 percent in December). Still, a majority (59 percent) still feels that businesses do not do a good job of informing consumers about what they do with their personal information. And 43 percent of online users feel businesses have no incentive to protect consumer privacy.

“Privacy notices must be dramatically simplified — both online and off,” Kamp said.

The PLI is a partnership of CEOs from 15 major corporations and nine business associations, almost all with a stake in online marketing, including DoubleClick and Harris Interactive, as well as IBM, Intel, Proctor & Gamble and Dell Computer.

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