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Two US privacy related stories

Posted by James Hammerton @ 9:23 pm on 5 January, 2007.
Categories privacy and surveillance, the database state, US politics.
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A friend has sent me links to two privacy related stories from the US:

  • Apparently, the US Justice Department is building a database that will store case files from the FBI, Drug Enforcement Agency and other federal law enforcement agencies, that will be made available to local police forces around the country:

    The system, known as “OneDOJ,” already holds approximately 1 million case records and is projected to triple in size over the next three years, Justice officials said. The files include investigative reports, criminal-history information, details of offenses, and the names, addresses and other information of criminal suspects or targets, officials said.

    The database is billed by its supporters as a much-needed step toward better information-sharing with local law enforcement agencies, which have long complained about a lack of cooperation from the federal government.

    But civil-liberties and privacy advocates say the scale and contents of such a database raise immediate privacy and civil rights concerns, in part because tens of thousands of local police officers could gain access to personal details about people who have not been arrested or charged with crimes.

  • Another story highlights the use of CCTV to capture a killer. The amount of footage obtained from various sources in this cases suggests to me that the US is beginning to catch up with Britain in the pervasive use of CCTV.

Both cases illustrate how modern technology is driving considerable changes with regards to privacy, including enabling people to be surveiled in increasing detailed as they go about their lives, and enabling information to be shared easily amongst many thousands of law enforcement officers.

The CCTV example shows that there are benefits to the increasingly pervasive use of CCTV, and the easy sharing of information between federal and local police forces may also allow easier coordination of efforts in cross-jurisdictional cases.

The main question is how best to enable these benefits to be tapped whilst protecting people from the abuses that such systems can enable. If the police can trace an individual’s movements when solving a crime, it is clear they could also do so for more sinister purposes. Likewise, the easy sharing of case files between federal and local police enabled by the database carries a danger of the information being misused.

It is worth noting though that the plans for sharing case files are far less intrusive, and far less of a danger than many of the database schemes currently being proposed or implemented by the British government, which typically involve sharing information related to the entire population across government departments, without regard to innocence. Case files are at least limited to those who have been investigated for crime.

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