Magazine article Newsweek International

Nothing to Hide, Nothing to Fear; Europeans Stand to Lose More of Their Privacy and Civil Liberties Than Americans

Magazine article Newsweek International

Nothing to Hide, Nothing to Fear; Europeans Stand to Lose More of Their Privacy and Civil Liberties Than Americans

Article excerpt

Byline: Jeffrey Rosen, Rosen is the author of "The Naked Crowd: Reclaiming Security and Freedom in an Anxious Age."

The United States is now leading Europe and the rest of the world into a new age of surveillance. In the wake of 9/11, America has produced security technologies--from data mining at airports to biometrics for U.S. visitors--that are being exported and adopted across the globe. But while America's libertarian, antigovernment culture may help protect its citizens from the worst excesses of government surveillance, Europeans may not be so lucky. Because of their history and culture, Europeans stand to lose more of their privacy and civil liberties than their American counterparts.

As a cautionary tale, look no farther than Britain. Before 9/11, in response to fears of IRA terrorism, Britain wired itself up with so many surveillance cameras that it now resembles the set of the movie "The Truman Show." Instead of being perceived as an Orwellian intrusion, the cameras have proved extremely popular. Yet, though they were initially justified as a way of combating terrorism, the cameras have come to be used for very different purposes: 700 cameras now record the license plate of every car that enters central London during peak hours to confirm that drivers have paid a traffic-abatement tax. The British public, with its instinctive trust of government, has proved indifferent to the mission creep. More concerned about feeling safe than being safe, it is unmoved by the government's own studies, which suggest that the proliferation of surveillance cameras has had "no effect on violent crime" or terrorism.

Contrast this placid acceptance with the American resistance to a proposal, after 9/11, to bring a "British style" surveillance system to the nation's capital. The police wanted to link cameras on the Washington Mall with others mounted on police helicopters, in public schools and in the city subway. Eventually they hoped to accept video feeds from private businesses that would allow remote monitoring of the entire city. Despite the support of community leaders, the surveillance plan was stopped by a vocal bipartisan coalition of liberals and conservatives suspicious of government power in all forms. The same bipartisan coalition in America has also blocked other post-9/11 security initiatives. Congress, for instance, said no to a national identification card and imposed sunset provisions on sections of the USA Patriot Act. Criticism from privacy advocates also led the Bush administration to scale back a system for prescreening air passengers. …

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