Sunday, October 25, 2009

Privacy in Europe

This story ("Ever-Present Surveillance Rankles the British Public", New York Times) does make RIPA (the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act) sound pretty creepy.
I can understand using this level of surveillance in cases of national security (i.e. suspected terrorists), but does a woman suspected of falsifying her address so that her daughter can attend one school over another really merit that kind of scrutiny?
...Under a law enacted in 2000 to regulate surveillance powers, it is legal for localities to follow residents secretly. Local governments regularly use these surveillance powers — which they “self-authorize,” without oversight from judges or law enforcement officers — to investigate malfeasance like illegally dumping industrial waste, loan-sharking and falsely claiming welfare benefits.

But they also use them to investigate reports of noise pollution and people who do not clean up their dogs’ waste. Local governments use them to catch people who fail to recycle, people who put their trash out too early, people who sell fireworks without licenses, people whose dogs bark too loudly and people who illegally operate taxicabs.
. . .

One of the biggest criticisms of the law is that the targets of surveillance are usually unaware that they have been spied on.

. . .

“They promptly ushered us out of the room,” she said. “As I stood outside the door, they said, ‘You go and tell your friends that these are the powers we have.’ ”

Soon afterward, their daughter was admitted to the school. Ms. Paton began pressing local officials on their surveillance tactics.

“I said, ‘I want to come in and talk to you,’ ” she said. “ ‘How many people were in the car? Were they men or women? Did they take any photos? Does this mean I have a criminal record?’”

No one would answer her questions, Ms. Paton said.

And in a related story from the Associated Press ("Lutefisk and loot: Tax records open in Norway"), we read about a different type of invasion of privacy.

In a move that would be unthinkable elsewhere, tax authorities in Norway have issued the "skatteliste," or "tax list," for 2008 to the media under a law designed to uphold the country's tradition of transparency.

The article goes on to share the (non-tax-sheltered) wealth of a few high-profile Norwegians-- but this "tax list" isn't just for the rich and/or famous. Everyone's on it.

Many media outlets use the tax records to produce their own searchable online databases. In the database of national broadcaster NRK, you can type a subject's name, hit search and within moments get information on what that person made last year, what was paid in taxes and total wealth. It also compares those figures with Norway's national averages for men and women, and that person's city of residence.

Defenders of the system say it enhances transparency, deemed essential for an open democracy.

"Isn't this how a social democracy ought to work, with openness, transparency and social equality as ideals?" columnist Jan Omdahl wrote in the tabloid Dagbladet. He acknowledged, however, that many treat the list like "tax porno" — furtively checking the income of neighbors or co-workers.

Critics say the list is actually a threat to society.

"What each Norwegian earns and what you have in wealth is a private matter between the taxpayer and the government," said Jon Stordrange, director of the Norwegian Taxpayer's Association.

Besides providing criminals with a useful tool to find prime targets, he said the list generates playground taunts of my-dad-is-richer-than-your-dad.

"The children of people with low wages are being teased about it in the schools," Stordrange said Thursday. "People with low salaries are being met with comments at the grocery store, 'How can you live on these low wages?'"

The information had been available to media until 2004, when a more conservative government banned the publication of tax records. Three years later, a new, more liberal government reversed the legislation and also made it possible for media to obtain tax information digitally and disseminate it online.

. . .

Most other Europeans, including residents of Britain, Italy and the Netherlands, have very different attitudes toward transparency and privacy and would be horrified at such a setup. Last week, the Spanish government for the first time released information on how much each Cabinet member is worth, but data on ordinary citizens is still private.

In neighboring Sweden, anyone can order a printed edition of the Taxation Calendar, which lists the earnings of people in mid- to upper-income brackets. The information is also available online, although Swedes whose financial information has been searched are notified by mail of who checked their details.

Christine Ingebritsen, a professor at the University of Washington, said the Norwegian tax list exemplifies a time-tested, distinctly Scandinavian custom of egalitarianism.

"This is how you make sure that you're being legitimate in the eyes of the community — you show that the wealth of a CEO isn't off the charts," she said, adding that unlike the U.S., Norway "places the wealth and health of all as a priority above the individual success stories."

Still, there are plenty of opponents of the list in Norway. A 2007 survey by research group Synovate revealed that only 32 percent of the Norwegian public wanted the tax list published, and 46 percent were against it.

Georg Apnes, director of Norway's Data Inspectorate and a member of the Conservative Party, called publishing and combing through the tax list "repulsive" and "disgusting."

"It reflects very poorly on our culture and on our society," he said on an NRK morning news program.

So, any bets on how long it'll be before the U.S. has its own versions of RIPA and the "Tax List"?