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Privacy group gives Tampa a boot for 'Snooper Bowl'

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By ROBERT TRIGAUX

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 14, 2001


When a professional group bestowed its annual awards to some extraordinary recipients, attention-hungry Tampa soared over stiff competition.

But in this case, to win is to lose.

At this month's third annual Big Brother awards sponsored by Privacy International, Tampa was crowned the "Worst Public Official" for using a new surveillance system during the Super Bowl in January. The system allowed law enforcement officials to spy on and compare the facial images of everyone attending the football game at Raymond James Stadium against a computer file of known criminals, scamsters and terrorists.

Fans never knew they were screened. Some matches occurred, but no arrests were made.

For its role in advancing the invasion of privacy, Tampa received an Orwell statue. The gold-colored statue, named in honor of 1984 author George Orwell, features a heavy boot trodding on a human head.

Nobody said the award was subtle. Tampa beat out other serious contenders for helping bring to life Orwell's vision of a controlled society.

The judges in this year's competition, 11 experts in privacy matters, decided Tampa's "Snooper Bowl" antics won over some Pennsylvania school districts that fingerprinted children participating in school lunch programs. Tampa even topped the Justice Department for its defense of the FBI's new e-mail-reading system (affectionately dubbed Carnivore) and "too many other privacy-invasive initiatives to count."

To its credit, Privacy International loves a good lampoon. The Orwell awards are a parody used to needle governments, corporations and individuals that think little or just don't care before adopting new technologies or policies that run roughshod over personal privacy.

Tampa officials were not present at this year's Big Brother ceremony in Boston. Privacy International chairman and awards host David Banisar presented Tampa's award to a person dressed in an NFL uniform. The Super Bowl "player" accepted the award and told the 300 in attendance "how proud he is" to receive such recognition.

This year's other Big Brother award winners are the FBI's Carnivore program ("Most Invasive Proposal"), ChoicePoint ("Greatest Corporate Invader") for selling personal records, and the National Security Agency ("Lifetime Menace") for its Clipper (encryption) chip and Echelon (electronic surveillance that can keyword-search most of the world's telephone calls, faxes and e-mails) network.

The annual Big Brother awards are presented with all the pomp and circumstance of the Academy Awards. "We create all the fanfare we can," Banisar says. "In the face of so many privacy attacks, you need a sense of humor. If we stood there and screamed, we'd go insane."

With due respect to this year's judges, Tampa does not deserve its Big Brother award.

No question, the city did not give a second thought to privacy rights before secretly capturing the image of every fan at the Super Bowl. In the wrong hands, face scanning -- which requires little or no cooperation from the subject -- could be used to track down just about anybody, not just criminals, who meets a set criteria.

Tampa's law enforcement officials make no apologies and maintain the surveillance system can help deter and solve crimes.

In truth, Tampa was an award winner because the city chose to test a surveillance system at what is this country's (and maybe the planet Earth's) biggest one-day sports obsession.

But there are other privacy invasions more onerous than the Super Bowl's face-matching system, says Wayne Madsen, one of this year's Orwell judges and a senior fellow at the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington.

The intrusion most worrisome to him: constantly improving Internet programs that track and record each individual's Web site visit.

"We need to get the public more interested in all these losses of privacy from technology," Madsen says. "The fact that the Super Bowl was such a blatant invasion of 100,000-plus people is something that fires up the public imagination and makes it deserving of the award."

Why pound the privacy issue so hard so often?

Because the pace of privacy invasion, the constant whittling away of "the right to be left alone," is accelerating. Consider these few examples:

Palm Beach-based Applied Digital Solutions built a chip called Digital Angel that could be implanted beneath human skin, enabling the company to track the location of a person almost anywhere. So far, Digital Angel is marketed as a device affixed to a watchband or a belt.

Invisible Web "bugs" increasingly can track which sites are visited by Internet surfers. "Bug" data can be cross-referenced with information from insurers, retailers and credit bureaus so advertising firms can create and sell detailed profiles of individuals to other parties for profit.

Cellular telephones will be equipped next year with chips that allow the user's location to be tracked. Government and industry officials say the chip will help find people who dial 911 in need of assistance.

Trucking companies are installing cameras to record the minutes leading up to accidents, along with data such as brake and turn signal use. Wait until lawyers try to get those videos to show juries.

Recording technologies such as TiVo and ReplayTV may one day let marketers customize ads based on television viewers' habits and preferences. Already, digital video recorders automatically call a central office to get updated program guides.

If only Florida were not in the national forefront of the attack on privacy.

In 1999, Rep. Bill McCollum earned an Orwell award in the "Worst Public Official" category for backing so many government surveillance programs.

This year, in addition to award-winning Tampa, ChoicePoint won because it was the company the state government hired to purge (with questionable results) Florida's voter list of criminals.

Here's a national contest where last place is best place.

- Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8405.

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