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9/11 response blamed for intrusion on U.S. privacy

AP | November 2, 2006

Germany and Canada are the best defenders of privacy and Malaysia and China the worst, an international rights group said in a report released Wednesday.
Britain was rated as an endemic surveillance society, at no. 33, just above Russia and Singapore on a ranking of 37 nations' privacy protections by London-based Privacy International.

The United States did only slightly better, at no. 30, ranked between Israel and Thailand, with few safeguards and widespread surveillance, the group said.

Efforts to quash terrorism have eroded individual privacy protections since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, human rights activists have warned. Governments around the world have imposed security and immigration legislation that invades people's private lives, they say.

In the United States, President Bush's administration has come under fire for its warrantless domestic wiretapping program, which monitors international phone calls and e-mails to or from the United States involving people suspected by the government of having terrorist links.

The New York Civil Liberties Union says there has been a staggering increase in surveillance of lawful activities with little concern for the civil liberties implications, said executive director Donna Lieberman.

In 1998, the union conducted a survey of video surveillance in Manhattan and found more than 2,300 cameras in use. Last year, a similar study found more than four times that number in just 20% of Manhattan, Lieberman said.

S. Arutchelvan, a Malaysian activist based in Kuala Lumpur, said privacy has not been sufficiently protected since the government stepped up efforts over the past five years to track down suspected Islamic militants, dozens of whom have been detained without trial.

"We believe there has been encroachment on privacy, such as the tapping of phones and other methods through telecommunications, in the name of fighting terrorism," Arutchelvan said.

Chinese legal activist Xu Zhiyong said strict Internet controls have resulted in fewer protections for Internet users in China.

The Communist government has set up an extensive surveillance and filtering system to prevent Chinese people from accessing material considered obscene or politically subversive.

Lawyers and academics raised awareness of privacy violations in China after a 2003 incident in which a couple was detained in the northwestern Shaanxi province for possession of pornographic videos.

"In the past few years, authorities have been making some positive changes to respect the privacy of individuals," Xu said. "But when it comes to the Internet, the government feels it must supervise users and that results in less privacy protection."

Privacy International tracks surveillance and privacy violations by governments and corporations, said director Simon Davies. It studied the reach of governments in their use of video surveillance in private locations, workplace monitoring and identity protection, among other areas.

"The aim is not to humiliate the worst-ranking nations, but to demonstrate that it is possible to maintain a healthy respect for privacy within a secure and fully functional democracy," Davies said.

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