Super Bowl Surveillance Raises Privacy Concerns in Congress

July 7, 2008 - 8:03 PM

(CNSNews.com) - Following revelations that police in Tampa, Fla., filmed the faces of everyone at the Super Bowl, the Congressional Privacy Caucus is back at work, more concerned than ever about invasions of privacy.

"Just as consumers lock their homes' doors and windows, we ought to put a deadbolt on financial, medical and other personal information to protect basic privacy," said Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) The bipartisan group also includes Senator Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) and Representatives Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Joe Barton (R-Tex.).

In the modern digital era when information is more easily collected and distributed than ever before, many Americans identify privacy as a concern. The legislators want to serve as advocates for personal privacy and provide a forum for discussing ways in which the federal government could become a protector of privacy. However, critics warn against putting government in charge of privacy standards.

Both Dodd and Markey said the Super Bowl incident illustrated the need for more government oversight of privacy issues. Tampa police filmed the faces of everyone entering the stadium where the Super Bowl was held on Sunday in an attempt to find known criminals and suspected terrorists.

All of the filmed images of the unsuspecting Super Bowl patrons were instantly sent to computers that compared everyone's face to mug shots from the wanted list. No effort was made to notify patrons or obtain their consent. The filming reportedly did produce a photographic match with an alleged ticket scalper.

"I find it appalling that football fans who attended this year's Super Bowl were secretly videotaped," said Markey. "We are increasing the risk of an Orwellian nightmare of pervasive surveillance into our everyday lives," said Markey, in a reference to George Orwell's famous novel, 1994.

The Caucus will host educational briefings for House and Senate members, and try to get privacy legislation approved. Caucus members want to force both government agencies and businesses to give individuals access to personal information about themselves, allow individuals to make corrections, and require consent before any information is used or disclosed.

"This caucus can be critically important in helping protect the privacy rights of all Americans," Dodd said.

"Over the next few months, we hope to explore current developments affecting various aspects of the privacy issue, including Internet privacy, financial privacy and medical and genetic privacy," said Markey.

But other lawmakers and scholars have a different vision of what the government's responsibility should be. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) and the Cato Institute say the government should not be put in charge of setting and overseeing privacy standards.

When it comes to protecting privacy, Paul wants to rein in government, not the private sector.

"The greatest threat to privacy is the federal government," said Paul in a written statement, pointing to the widespread use and abuse of Social Security numbers. He has a bill that would both forbid the use of Social Security numbers by any federal agency other than the Social Security administration and offer new Social Security numbers to Americans who want them.

"There's no constitutional authority for the federal government to come in and start telling private sector businesses what they can and cannot do with information," said Paul's spokesman, Jeff Deist. "The crime is that we've made it so easy for them by creating this monster with the Social Security number," he said.

Wayne Crews, the Cato Institute's director of technology policy, says there's no need for government intervention because the free market has ways of dealing with privacy concerns, through software products, in the case of Internet privacy, and corporate and consumer vigilance.

"The government, including the Bush administration and many members on the Hill, should realize that privacy policies that now exist on the Web are growing; more and more companies have privacy policies," said Crews. "If you go to a [Web] site and there's no privacy policy, you should avoid it. There's got to be some consumer responsibility here, too," he said.

Crews added that consumers benefit when the private sector collects information. "Markets need information to work," said Crews. "In order to serve people better, companies collect information that make it possible to offer products and services that are much more relevant" to what consumers want.