11 March 2008

Telephone and Bank privacy

Another point about all this: it's raised to my attention something I was familiar with but which never really sank in before.

There was a huge fuss over warrantless wiretaps. The law in the US is to tap a US phone, the government needs a warrant. For a time there was a program of not doing it, and it was discovered by the press and caused a huge scandal. The recent arguments have been over whether the telephone company that illegally assisted in the tapping should be prosecuted or given immunity.

But investigators didn't need a warrant to find out about Spitzer's transfers to QAT. They didn't need even to ask. His bank, like all banks in the US and the UK, was legally obliged to report anything suspicious to the authorities. Every employee has to be reminded every year of the sort of things they are supposed to be wary of, and reminded that they personally are criminally at fault if they have suspicions and fail to report them to the organisation's appointed "Money Laundering Reporting Officer".

It is as if AT&T, now being sued for wrongfully intercepting its customers' conversations on behalf of the government, were in fact legally obliged to listen in to all its customers' calls, evaluate them, and notify the authorities of anything suspicious.

But somehow that's never received the public attention that phone-tapping gets.

The thing about privacy safeguards is that people don't really care about them particularly on their merits. They have symbolic importance because they have been the subject of controversy in the past. That is why your right to the presumption of innocence vanishes as soon as you sit down in a car, and why your right to privacy disappears when you enter a bank branch. The authorities use the new powers to go around the safeguards, and then finally start to flout them when they are so used to working around them that they can't believe anyone still takes them seriously any more.

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