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Net-privacy activists bemoan anti-terror agenda

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NEW YORK, New York (Reuters) -- As long-haired computer programmers and bearded civil-liberties advocates gathered in a hotel ballroom Wednesday, it was the clean-shaven Army guards at the train station across the street who evidently dominated the agenda.

Past sessions of the Computers, Freedom and Privacy conference have tackled government technology policies, including encoded communications and online privacy. But participants said anti-terrorism efforts appear to be the top concern this year.

"You can have as much security as you want. It's just a question of what you are willing to give up for it in return," said computer-security expert Bruce Schneier.

From weakened wiretap laws to airline passenger-screening programs that check bank records and other personal data, domestic-security efforts have shifted the agenda, with the heightened military presence around the city only the most visible change, said conference organizer Barry Steinhardt.

"New York has, to some degree, the feel of an armed camp," Steinhardt, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said in welcoming conference attendees.

Speakers questioned what impact security efforts will have on personal liberties and whether those efforts would be effective at preventing attacks.

Every government dollar devoted to anti-terror efforts is a dollar not spent fighting crime, disease or other threats, they said. At the same time, private businesses could use security as an excuse to further their own agendas -- prohibiting sports fans from bringing coolers into a baseball stadium, for example.

New efforts to flush out terrorists from the general population will inevitably lead to abuses of power if unchecked, speakers said.

"These vast accumulations of data are an encouragement to incredible amounts of mischief," said Edward Tenner, a historian and author of "Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences."

The conference covers a range of topics -- from the growing use of video surveillance cameras in public spaces to the potential abuses of embedded radio frequency chips by retailers to thwart theft.

While the conference has included national intelligence and Department of Justice officials in the past, this year there were few government representatives listed on the program. Most officials had declined to participate, Steinhardt said, saying they were occupied with other matters. As a result, early speakers tended to share a similar civil-libertarian stance, and many discussions took the form of "feel-good" pep talks rather than no-holds-barred debate.

"As individuals we have no power. It is only stepping outside as a consumer, as the public, as citizens, in aggregate that we have power to make changes," Schneier said.

Security fears reduced attendance even among committed computer civil liberties activists, several organizers said. Some potential participants stayed at home, citing fears of traveling during wartime.

"The mood is more somber," said Robert Guerra, an international human rights campaigner from Canada and one of the conference organizers.

"In prior years, people were caught up in all the ways technology could fix social problems. What we are seeing now, with focus on security, is that technology is fixing things, but in the wrong direction," he said.

Among the scheduled events is a panel that will seek to expose "Stupid Security" technologies that fail to accomplish their stated goals, as well as the distribution Thursday of Privacy International's "George Orwell Awards" -- mock prizes for the biggest violators of citizen and consumer privacy rights among government officials and corporations as judged by a panel of privacy rights advocates.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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