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Privacy 'Dark Ages' force activist rethink

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Privacy activists need to change tactics to adapt to changing public attitudes, a leading campaigner said Thursday. Simon Davies, a director of Privacy International, said campaigners need to win the argument by force of evidence rather than assuming that people naturally guard their privacy against government encroachment, an assumption he said is no longer valid.

If "logic and common sense" fail to shift public policy then "well placed" technicians might be prepared to sabotage invasive projects, Davies predicted. He said government moves to systematically profile and monitor its citizens have inflamed techies - even though the public at large remain indifferent. Government surveillance efforts predate the 9/11 terrorist attacks and include many projects (such as Britain's ID card scheme) of questionable utility.

Davies used to believe the need to guard personal privacy against invasion was a self-evident truth. But public willingness to accept ubiquitous CCTV camera coverage, ID cards and similar projects show most people no longer really care about privacy, even in countries such as the Netherlands which saw mass protests against something as low key as a government census 20 years ago.

Attitudes have changed, Davies told delegates during a keynote at the Black Hat security conference in Amsterdam on Thursday. "People are prepared to hand over their private information in return for promises of a better and safer world," Davies said. "We're seeing the most invasive systems in world history with practically no reaction."

He said that this "communitarianism" doctrine means people are prepared to yield rights providing governments are more accountable. Davies sees little evidence of a greater public good from government protects that encroach on personal privacy. Creating unified government databases of citizen records increases the risk of ID theft. Monitoring the activities of citizens does little to frustrate terrorist activity. Privacy International’s list goes on.

"We are living through an aberration of history - a dark ages for personal privacy," Davies commented. Instead of simply warning people about how much data government and private companies hold on citizens, Privacy International is changing tactics by commissioning independent research, such as a recent ID cards study from the London School of Economics.

"If logic and common sense doesn't prevail within five years then well-placed techies may be tempted to resort to 'guerrilla warfare' tactics. We’ve talking about a resistance – along the lines of what happened in France in World War II - not wild-eyed activists," Davies said.

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