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The right to privacy: What price would you pay for security? (News Special).

As you skateboard through the park or rent a DVD, law-enforcement officials may be watching your every move. If this sounds like something only out of a James Bond thriller, think again.

Surveillance cameras are everywhere: in schools, stores, hospitals, and hotels. The cameras have become cheap and easy to install--and people hardly take notice.

Designed to help fight crime, electronic surveillance has been a part of U.S. life for decades. But after the September 11, 2001, attacks, U.S. officials took things a step further.

Congress broadened the government's surveillance powers by passing the USA Patriot Act in October 2001. Thanks to the legislation, law-enforcement officials can now read your e-mail, learn how much money you withdrew from the bank, and ask librarians what books you checked out. Government agencies can also share information they have gathered about you.

President Bush says that the USA Patriot Act is "essential not only to pursuing and punishing terrorists, but also preventing more' atrocities [brutal or cruel acts]

Many critics, however, view the new surveillance law as an attack on privacy. The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects against "unreasonable searches and seizures." Critics also object to the sharing of information among government agencies, banned by the Privacy Act of 1974.

"We need to strike a balance between targeting terrorists with everything we've got and also protecting the rights and freedoms cherished by Americans," says Senator Joseph Grassley (R, Iowa).

But finding that balance can be tricky.

Gathering Information

In November 2002, the U.S. Department of Defense began to develop computer software to monitor the activities of suspected terrorists. The Total Information Awareness (TIA) program would gather such personal data as bank records, tax returns, and credit-card bills from individuals thought to be plotting terrorist acts.

"We must be able to detect, classify, identify, and track terrorists, so that we may understand their plans and act to prevent them from being [carried out]," says John M. Poindexter, the retired U.S. Navy admiral who oversees TLA.

Congress recently voted to deny the program funding until the Pentagon explains how TIA will affect civil liberties. But the Pentagon can use TIA technology to investigate non-citizens living in the U.S.

Now, new legislation sought by the Justice Department attempts to broaden the Patriot Act. Known as the Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003, the new law would strip Americans accused of terrorist-related crimes of their citizenship, limit public access to government information, and create a DNA database of suspected terrorists.

Critics argue that the law would further erode the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Says U.S. Representative John Conyers (D, Michigan): "This draft bill constitutes yet another egregious [terrible] blow to our citizens' civil liberties."

A Face in the Crowd

Technological advances have helped government officials develop increasingly sophisticated monitoring devices. Facial recognition, or "biometric," software has been used at large public events such as the Super Bowl. The technology enables law-enforcement officials to compare faces in the crowd with photographs of terrorists and other dangerous criminals.

Photos of three of the September 11 hijackers were in U.S. government databases before the attacks. The terrorists escaped notice, however, because U.S. airports did not have biometric programs. Supporters of the technology say that it might have prevented the attacks. But the software has not proved completely reliable. At the Super Bowl in January 2001, "face cameras" photographed spectators before and after the game. Biometric software matched 19 spectators with terrorists listed in a government database. It was later determined, however, that the 19 people were not linked to any crimes.

Critics point to the error as an example of how facial recognition software can lead to the wrongful arrest of innocent people. Still, U.S. airports and police departments are now installing the technology. And many U.S. companies are developing computer programs that will identify individuals by scanning their fingertips, retinas, and veins.

Safety or Freedom?

What matters more: keeping the public safe or guaranteeing the right to privacy? According to one recent poll, 62 percent of Americans prefer privacy-rights protection to additional security measures.

But many government officials argue that increased government vigilance (watchfulness) has made our nation safer. According to Robert Mueller, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), new security measures have helped to prevent nearly 100 terrorist acts over the past 18 months.

U.S. law-enforcement officials recently arrested a college professor in Florida for allegedly supporting a Palestinian terrorist organization. For the past eight years, the professor's activities have made him the focus of FBI and CIA investigations. But it was only when the two agencies began to share their findings, under the USA Patriot Act, that officials had enough evidence to bring charges.

What do you think? Are security measures endangering Americans' right to privacy? Before you decide, take a moment to look around. You might be on camera.

Your Turn: THINK ABOUT IT

Do you think an increase in surveillance activities could lead to abuse of power by the government? How?
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Article Details
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Author:Landauro, Victor
Publication:Junior Scholastic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 28, 2003
Words:846
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