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The New Republic Online
Thursday, March 3rd, 2005


 

No Place to Hide

by Robert O'harrow

Private Industry

A review by Telis Demos

To veteran Washington Post reporter Robert O'Harrow, September 11 was the tipping point in a battle for civil liberties. For decades, private companies and hush-hush government projects have been expanding and improving their ability to gather information about American citizens. When the planes hit the towers, the political will to use these capabilities was born, and since then a frightening new surveillance society has arisen, according to No Place to Hide. In anecdote after anecdote, O'Harrow details the incredible range and variety of information being collected, and how the FBI and other agencies have begun learning to put it to use. He explores new fingerprint and eye-scan technologies that the government can now match up to terrorist watch lists. He notes that the Department of Homeland Security has awarded record-setting contracts to private firms to analyze the disparate consumer data floating around, tag people who make suspicious purchases and travel arrangements, and create actionable police reports. O'Harrow recounts many instances where this information wasn't used against terrorists but rather in routine police investigations, for which the post-9/11 intelligence reforms were never intended.

O'Harrow's compelling anecdotes pile up, and they paint a scary picture, but No Place to Hide doesn't go far enough in drawing distinctions. For one thing, in his long discussions of private companies in the consumer information business, O'Harrow doesn't really explain the difference between information about products and information about people. Wal-Mart, to cite one of his examples, collects terabytes worth of information every day and uses tiny radio chips, called RFIDs, to track goods. But how much of it is totally unspecific information about what's purchased and where? And does its collection really threaten the privacy of individuals?

Nor does O'Harrow acknowledge that good uses of some information can outweigh the potential bad uses -- or at least that voters might see it that way. Many of O'Harrow's anecdotes of police relying on private information services involve catching criminals on the run, through practices like watching where debit cards are used. Most people approve of this, and would vote for it. And many social policies, such as means-testing Social Security benefits, require similar kinds of information as terrorist-identification does (income, home-ownership, investment purchases, etc). All kinds of economic indicators, like the consumer price index or the GDP, could become more accurate through massive data-collection efforts. Even purely private information has benefits: Wal-Mart's data help provide low-cost goods in sufficient quantities around the world.

So while No Place to Hide is great journalism, and an important record of the post-9/11 revolution in surveillance, it's more narrative than analysis. Information has many different uses, and we need a legal framework that protects our privacy by distinguishing among them. Providing such a framework isn't the purpose of O'Harrow's book; but kudos to him for prodding us to ask the right questions.


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