Privacy vs the War on Terror

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In today’s world, how to protect citizens from terrorism is a common question between the United Kingdom and the United States. Both have been directly impacted by the horrors of terrorism, causing each to increase security and try to be more vigilant of the war on terror. The United Kingdom has had more experience with terrorism in the past, leading them to have different digital security technologies in place to help protect its people. Two of these technologies, facial recognition and CCTV, are in place to protect the public by spotting potential terrorists, or known suspects of terrorism. In the United States, the digital security technologies of choice seem to be data mining and data sharing. These technologies can put generally unalarming pieces of information together about people, which, when combined and in the right hands, could potentially raise red flags to authorities, and tip them off that someone may be planning a terrorist attack. While protecting innocent people should sound like an obvious decision that should never be questioned, there has been outcry about these digital technologies.

In the UK, people believe that being tracked by cameras in public places is an obstruction of their personal privacy. In the United States, data mining has been used for other objectives for a long time, generally commercial ones. Only in more recent times has it become an issue of privacy, and I think that is likely because it is now the government who has access to information about people. This conflict between the war on terror and personal privacy has become a topic of hot debate in recent times, but it has distinct differences between the US and the UK.

The United Kingdom is used to terrorism, more so than anyone should have to be. Their experience spans decades, far beyond when the United States was worrying about heightened security. Today, it is probably only the Irish Republican Army, or IRA, that people associate with local terrorism in the United Kingdom. Before this research, I also thought that I understood the conflict. I knew that it started a long time ago and the IRA was and is a terrorist group who uses violence to demonstrate their beliefs that British soldiers should be removed from Ireland [5]. The history actually goes back even further than I had previously realized. The IRA was not the first terrorist activity between Britain and Ireland: as far back as 1857, there was another group who planned to overthrow British government in Ireland. These people, who accepted violence as a political device, were called the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Being long before modern sophisticated weaponry, this group targeted specific political leaders and soldiers, and their acts of terror were on a much smaller scale. After an uprising in 1867, this group was replaced by the current, more widely known IRA [5]. Continuing the trend of those who came before them, the IRA terrorized Britain. As far back as 1939, bombs were being used to cause civilian casualties. The conflicts between the IRA, including splinter groups P(provisional)IRA and R(real)IRA, and Britain have been bloody and politically-fueled, and they continue today, though peace agreements are trying to be reached [10].

The United Kingdom’s troubles are not only involving the IRA. Much more recently, in July of 2005, London was attacked by four terrorists on three tube lines and a bus [9]. Fifty-two civilians were killed, and about seven hundred others were injured. The suicide bombers were later found to have connections with the terrorist organization, Al Qaeda [7]. Unfortunately, the United Kingdom is currently and has been a hot spot for terrorism. For this reason, they have implemented digital security technologies to help them reduce the risk and keep the public safe. These technologies include Facial Recognition and CCTV.

Facial Recognition is a highly technological process. There are many means available to achieve facial recognition, some of which are more effective than others. This technology consists of having a known face from a picture, CCTV footage, or eyewitness account, then putting it through a recognition program, at which point it notes information on the face such as distance between the eyes, the shape of the cheekbones, etc. This data is then saved in a huge database for later comparisons with everyone else who is scanned [4]. The technology has encountered many critics after performing poorly in controlled tests. Many factors have played a part in whether facial recognition works or not, some of which include whether the lighting is controlled or not, the angle of the face at the time of the image capture, and the facial expression the target has. While past attempts to test facial recognition have seemed depressing [3], the technology is improving very quickly, and is being implemented more widely than ever before [11].

Closed-circuit television, or CCTV, has been in use in the United Kingdom for years. Simply put, it is a network of cameras located in public places. These cameras are monitored by people, whose intent is to spot suspicious behavior. However, people holding these jobs usually have an attention span of around twenty minutes for staring at multiple monitors showing continuous activity. There are four million of these cameras in the UK, and it has been said that a person in London is on camera around three hundred times a day. CCTV can be a powerful tool against crime in general, as well as terrorism, and cameras are becoming more sophisticated [2]. Some can now detect certain behaviors to notify authorities to a suspicious person. A new system called ‘Agent Vi’ attaches a monitoring technology to cameras that allows them to recognize these human behaviors. Another benefit to the technology is that it can be programmed to realize what, for example, a tube train should look. If it notices any changes, it can also contact authorities [8]. There are also CCTV cameras with the power of facial recognition to be able to scan faces in crowds and analyze them. These cameras are currently in some of the busiest tube stations [2].

Despite the fact that these technologies are in place to protect innocent public, there has been resistance. Privacy issues have been encountered with each technology. For example, facial recognition is likely to be widely used as a biometric identification device. This technology, which could help catch suspected terrorists, would have to be implemented on every person for it to be effective. People have become upset that they may have their face scanned, with or without their knowledge, for things such as retrieving money from an ATM, entering certain buildings, or simply walking along a tube platform. Citizens of the UK may be slightly more used to CCTV, because it is an older technology that they have accepted. However, there has been backlash about some of the ‘Smart CCTV’ systems, with facial recognition and behavioral analysis programs attached. Due to these security technologies, citizens of the United Kingdom are feeling that their privacy is being infringed upon.

The United States has become familiar with terrorism only recently. On September 11, 2001, terrorists took control of airliners and diverted their courses to collide with buildings in New York City and Washington D.C. Thousands of people were killed in this collaborated attack. Since 9/11, security has risen and new digital security technologies have been implemented to try and prevent any similar future attacks. The technologies used in the US are not always as apparent as those used in the UK. They take place online or in computers far away while Americans go on with their lives, for the most part, not noticing. These technologies are data mining and data sharing.

Data mining has not always been used as a security feature. It involves keeping enormous databases filled with data of all kinds about nearly every person in the United States [1]. It can be used to figure out which items will likely be bought together at a grocery store, or to suggest promotions to customers according to their buying habits. More recently, however, data mining has been used to collect information such as travel information, phone records, purchases on credit cards, etc. The recent goal has been to try to connect behavior that may seem normal when it stands alone with other behaviors that, when looked at all together, may put up a red flag on a person [1]. For example, someone purchasing hydrogen peroxide in a semi-large quantity may not seem suspicious, however if connected with multiple phone calls to the same people as well as certain other purchases, this person could be a possible suicide bomber, as was the case in the London bombings [7].

For data mining to be effective to catch possible terrorists, the information must get into the hands of those who can put it to use. To achieve this, data sharing has become a more widely implemented digital security technology. Information can now be sent to the proper places, giving the right people all the useful information needed to recognize potential terrorists. Data sharing is a means of connecting different sets of data, most likely from ‘data mines’, with different people. Oftentimes, when the goal is to combat terrorism, the data is shared between government agencies, etc. The lack of data sharing has been blamed for miscommunication and poor action during and after the 9/11 attacks [6]. Data sharing has the potential to play a huge role in foiling terrorist plots. All it takes is the right information in the right hands. This has been difficult to achieve, mostly because of the immense amounts of data that is collected. Data sharing needs to become more refined in that pieces of information need to be kept to whom they are useful so as to not infringe on the public’s personal lives any more than necessary [6].

Citizens of the United States seem to have a much higher expectation of privacy than their counterparts in the United Kingdom. Those who oppose data mining and data sharing because they believe these technologies are allowing the government to spy on its citizens seem to oppose them more loudly than those in the UK who oppose facial recognition or CCTV. This may just be a difference in culture, but they definitely share the objection part. Data mining can seem like an enormous breach of personal privacy, because of the amount and type of data that is collected on nearly everyone. However, data sharing is what seems to have caused a bigger stir. People who have accepted data mining now must deal with the fact that they do not know who has access to all of their personal data, or what it may be used for. For these reasons, the US has become more wary of the digital security technologies in place to prevent terrorism.

Obviously, the United Kingdom and the United States have had very different experiences with fighting the war on terrorism, as well as dealing with the privacy issues that go along with it. Effectiveness plays a huge role in this highly debated topic. If a program costs lots of money and collects a lot of information, but is not at all effective, it may as well not exist. The UK has more experience, which is why I believe that their digital security technologies are more effective as of now.

While in the UK, we heard a lot about facial recognition, as well as how they believed it to be ineffective. However, contrary to this belief, I found loads of information about how the technology has come a long way. This is inevitable in today’s society, but I was surprised to see how much the opinion of the public over there differed from the reported data that I found. As of 2006, there were studies showing that the effectiveness of some company’s facial recognition programs were nearly one hundred percent [11]. While it has been widely discussed that the programs are ineffective due to many variables, such as lighting, angle of the picture, and facial expression, programs are becoming ever-better with dealing with these discontinuities. Trial runs may have failed miserably years ago, but the technology is constantly evolving. Facial recognition is becoming more and more effective, and will soon be a major force in combating terrorism in the UK [11].

As of right now, it seems that CCTV is better for hindsight than it is for capturing suspects in real time. After something has happened, it is highly effective for piecing together what happened, when, and who was involved, as with the London bombings [7]. However, with the new technologies that are being implemented with CCTV, I believe it will soon become a force to be reckoned with. Effective facial recognition software will get nearly everyone’s faces in a database when used in conjunction with CCTV, as people are generally on the cameras multiple times a day [2]. Also, people with something to hide, who will likely be acting in a strange way, will have attention drawn to them by CCTV cameras with behavioral analysis programs installed [8]. For these reasons, I believe that CCTV will soon be one of the most effective security technologies available to combat terrorism.

As I previously stated, data mining and data sharing are much less public than facial recognition and CCTV. For this reason, it is difficult to gauge how effective they have been concerning the war on terrorism. Data mining has only recently been used to fight terrorism, and only recently has it included information such as phone records. I believe it is still in the beginning phases of being a tool to properly combat terrorism. I do, however, think that its potential is huge. Assuming the correct data is being collected and analyzed, terrorists will be ratted out by their own plans. Such is also the case with data sharing. It is still a very young idea, but one that shows promise. It will take a complex system of sharing, restrictions, and analyzers. I believe that once the requirements are met, terrorists will not be able to hide. This should be the goal on everyone’s minds, at home or across the pond.

Works Cited

Works Cited

[1] Birrer, Frans A.J. "Data mining to combat terrorism and the roots of privacy concerns." Ethics and Information Technology 7.4 (Dec 2005): 211(10). Academic OneFile. Gale. Slippery Rock University-Bailey Library. 16 Apr. 2008 <>.

[2] "Closed Circuit Television - CCTV." Liberty.Org. 30 Aug. 2006. 23 Apr. 2008 <>.

[3] "Face Recognition." EPIC.Org. 5 Sept. 2007. 23 Apr. 2008 <>.

[4] Geoghegan, Tom. "3D Biometric Facial Recognition Comes to UK." BBC News Magazine. 25 Nov. 2004. 23 Apr. 2008 <>.
[5] History.Com.Uk. 2002. 23 Apr. 2008 <>.

[6] Hoover, Nicholas, and Eric Chabrow. "Homeland Security: How Far Have We Come?" Information Week 5 Sept. 2005. Academic OneFile. Gale. Slippery Rock University-Bailey Library. 16 Apr. 2008.

[7] "London Bombers Staged 'Dummy Run'" BBC.Co. 20 Sept. 2005. 23 Apr. 2008 <>.

[8] Meaney, Mick. "20% of UK CCTV Could Judge Your Behaviour Within 3 Years." RINF. 28 June 2007. 23 Apr. 2008 <>.

[9] "Minute-by-Minute Account." CNN.Com. 11 May 2006. 23 Apr. 2008 <>.
[10] "Northern Ireland." BBC. 2005. 23 Apr. 2008 <>.

[11] Phillips, P. Jonathon. FRVT 2006 and ICE 2006. National Institute of Standards and Technology. 2007. 1-55. 23 Apr. 2008 <>.

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