Spurred by loosened legal standards following the 2001 terrorist attacks, the United States is evolving into a Big Brother society as technology advances and surveillance grows, the American Civil Liberties Union warned in a report released Wednesday.
The report, titled "Bigger Monster, Weaker Chains: The Growth of an American Surveillance Society," says Americans' privacy and liberty are at risk.
"A combination of lightning-fast technological innovations and the erosion of privacy protections threatens to transform Big Brother from an oft-cited but remote threat into a very real part of American life," the report says.
The report is a wide-ranging briefing on technology, privacy rules and new laws being employed in the government's war on terrorism.
"The reasonable expectation of privacy has been dramatically diminished," Barry Steinhardt, an ACLU director, said in an interview.
The report says a growing "surveillance monster" is emerging in which the private and the public sector are monitoring Americans with video cameras to the extent that it is becoming almost impossible to walk the streets of major cities without being filmed.
Yet there are virtually no rules governing what is allowed to be done with those tapes, like employing face-recognition technology to investigate and identify people.
Also, computer chips used for motorists' tollbooth speed passes might one day be used on identification cards to allow police officers to "scan your identification when they pass you on the street," the report says.
The study points to the Total Information Awareness pilot project, in which the Pentagon is seeking to maintain a database of Americans' medical, health, financial, tax and other records. Yet there are few privacy laws to prevent businesses from selling the government such information, Steinhardt said.
"If we do not act to reverse the current trend, data surveillance - like video surveillance - will allow corporations or the government to constantly monitor what individual Americans do every day," the report says.
Moreover, under the Patriot Act, the anti-terrorist legislation passed by Congress immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks, the government can demand that libraries turn over reading habits of patrons. Authorities can more easily attain telephone and computer wiretaps, and conduct searches in secret without immediately notifying the target.
Viet Dinh, an assistant U.S. attorney general and one of the government's spokesmen on security topics, said in a recent interview that the Bush administration would not abuse these far-reaching powers.
"I think security exists for liberty to flourish and liberty cannot exist without order and security," Dinh said.
New rules, the report notes, reinstate the FBI's ability to spy on Americans even when no crime is suspected and allows authorities to share with prosecutors information obtained via search warrants granted by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court. Under FISA court rules, Americans are not protected by the bread-and-butter legal standard of probable cause - prosecutors need only say the search will assist a terror probe.
"It is not just the reality of government surveillance that chills free expression and the freedom that Americans enjoy," the report says. "The same negative effects come when we are constantly forced to wonder whether we might be under observation."
Copyright 2003 The Associated Press