FBI agent: I am Big Brother

Pro-privacy groups might consider him 'the enemy,' but Paul George counters: 'There are worse things than having your privacy violated ... like murder.'

Can effective law enforcement and personal privacy coexist? Law enforcement officials and privacy advocates faced off in a panel discussion Wednesday over the issue of the tradeoffs between security and privacy at the 10th annual Computer, Freedom and Privacy 2000 Conference in Toronto, Canada.

Law enforcement officials and privacy advocates faced off in a panel discussion Wednesday over the issue of the tradeoffs between security and privacy at the 10th annual Computer, Freedom and Privacy 2000 Conference in Toronto, Canada.

"There are reasons law enforcement should and does have the power to arrest and to search," said Paul George, supervisory special agent for the Michigan bureau of the FBI. "There are worse things than having your privacy violated ... like murder."

George debated fiercely, but politely, with privacy advocates on the need for privacy invasive investigative techniques -- such as wiretaps, searches and Internet tracking -- to fight crime. In fact, recognising that many at the conference consider him to be "the enemy," George called himself "the Big Brother in Michigan."

Few here doubt that privacy has been a casualty of the steady drive towards computerisation and the Internet economy.

While corporations -- such as RealNetworks, DoubleClick, Intel and Microsoft -- have increasingly been taken to task for invading citizens' privacy on the Internet, law enforcement and the government continue to be a major worry for privacy advocates.

Surveillance on the rise

In 1999, police officers searched for individuals in the National Crime Information Center database two million times daily, up from the 600,000 daily transactions averaged in 1988. Likewise, wiretaps are expected to rise, more than 300 percent in the next 10 years, according to the 2001 FBI budget request.

The trends will only get worse, as technology lowers the barriers that face law enforcement surveillance, said Thomas M. Cecil, a superior court judge for the county of Sacramento, California. "In reality, most of what we have is the illusion of openness. Today, we have defacto privacy policy, because we are inefficient; probing and gathering are time consuming and expensive. That protects our privacy," he said.

Jim X. Dempsey, senior staff council for the technology-policy think tank Center for Democracy and Technology and a member of the panel, agreed, adding that more efficient data collection makes a privacy policy that much more critical. "As the technical hurdles are solved then legal limitations need to be put in place to limit the (invasion of privacy) of citizens," he said.

While Dempsey said he believed that privacy and citizen safety could co-exist, the FBI's George upheld the common wisdom that they cannot.

"I don't know how (others) can say that there is no price to privacy or price to security in this equation," he said. "In order to prevent crime, information has to be collected... if justified."

Everyone a potential suspect?

Yet, without proper regulations about when and how data can be collected, such an assertion makes everyone a suspect, said Jason Catlett, president of privacy information firm Junkbusters, who takes a dim view of current practices.

"It's like they are saying that we have a lot of robbers, so in order to protect the banks -- rather than make them more secure -- they are requiring the identity of everyone who walks in front of banks."

The FBI's George realises where the FBI's push for more surveillance powers puts the agency: "If there is going to be a Big Brother in the United States, it is going to be us -- the FBI," he said.

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