US near the bottom in privacy study

by Bob Sullivan, Red Tape Chronicles

U.S. privacy protections rank among the worst in the democratic world, a London-based privacy organization said Wednesday.

Privacy International ranked 36 nations around the globe, including all European Union nations and other major democracies, and determined that in categories such as enforcement of privacy laws, the U.S. is on par with countries like China, Russia and Malaysia.

Overall, the U.S. was determined to be an "extensive surveillance society,” the second-lowest rating in the study, which is available at Privacy International's Web site.

The survey identified Malaysia, China and Russia as the world’s lowest-ranked countries in terms of privacy. It ranked Germany and Canada as those that best protect the privacy of their citizens.

"The rankings establish for the first time that most of the world’s most economically advanced countries have failed to protect the privacy rights of their citizens, while some of the newest and poorest democracies have become best protectors," wrote Privacy International director Simon Davies in announcing the report.

"This is damning evidence that privacy is being destroyed by the very nations that proclaim to respect our rights," he said. "It is clear that there is a systemic failure of legal mechanisms to protect us against the emerging surveillance society. Those responsible for protecting our rights have failed to do so ... Australia, Britain and the United States have not only performed abysmally but they are embracing surveillance at an alarming speed."

The rankings were based on the “Privacy and Human Rights: report, a 1,200-page survey of privacy experts conducted by Privacy International and the U.S.-based Electronic Privacy Information Center. The study has been published every year since 1997.

That study detailed numerous surveillance and privacy-infringing activities by governments and corporations around the globe. This year, for the first time, Privacy International used that report to compare nations in about a dozen categories and rank them. Categories included use of identity cards and biometrics, levels of workplace monitoring, law enforcement access to private data and communications interception.
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The U.S. fared poorly in multiple categories, including communications interceptions, workplace monitoring and transmission of data across international borders.

But the U.S. was not the worst-performing democracy in the study -- the United Kingdom was. It placed last among EU countries. Among EU nations, Germany, Belgium and Austria were at the top of the list.

Outside the EU, Canada, Argentina, and New Zealand took the first three spots.

Not all privacy experts embrace the study or its methodology.

Larry Ponemon of The Ponemon Institute, a privacy research firm, said the study failed to take into account other factors, such as the active war on terror being conducted in the U.S. and U.K. Other countries are not engaged in the same kind of balancing act involving privacy and security, he said.

"In New Zealand, (terrorism) doesn't enter into their radar screen," he said by phone from Auckland, N.Z. Ponemon also said comparing different countries was tricky business, with varying social and legal traditions making comparisons less scientifically valid, he said.

"They are trying to create a world standard even though people in different countries have different circumstances," he said. "It's like trying to have a different tax rate when there isn't a common currency."

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