||Eyes Wide Shut: Big Brother 2
April 03, 2002 Paul Sullivan
Summary: Our resident watchdog, Paul, explores other areas of technology beyond the PC that may be threatening our privacy. Read on and decide for yourself whether we have much to fear from credit bureaus, GPS technology, and our social security number.
| Introduction||Page:: ( 1 / 5 )|
In the first part of our Big Brother series, I concentrated on some of the concerns with privacy and security inside of the current technology. I focused much of the time on Microsoft and Windows XP, as the situation surrounding both of them is currently pretty intense. I do want Microsoft to succeed, and I do want to be able to trust their software, because I find some of it incredibly useful. I appreciate their Windows Update and Office Update options. They are two of the most convenient processes I have seen on my PC, even though I still prefer to use Windows 98 SE and Office 2000. The fact that I can put both of those links into the “Trusted Zone” in Internet Explorer 6, and then sit back and watch the update wizards do their magic is a very compelling reason to purchase their software. It saves me a great deal of time hunting down bug fixes, security fixes, and so much more. Windows XP even throws in the ability to download updated device drivers, for those who prefer XP.
I continue my love/hate relationship with the software/corporate policies, but I truly want Microsoft to get back on track and become trustworthy again. Given their role in the industry, it is crucial for us that they do succeed. I hope that debacles such as the Windows Media Player 8 play tracking discovery and their grudging acknowledgement of ongoing security leaks in their products snap them out of their old-world corporate culture and into a new, more forthright, more trusting relationship with consumers and the industry it dominates. I sincerely hope they learn their lesson and turn over a new leaf, because it would benefit everyone if they did.
A Whole New World
In part two of this series, I want to focus on how these new technological advances open the door for Big Brother to invade our lives in ways far removed from the world of personal computers. As annoyed as I am with the problems on the software side, I am absolutely stunned by some of the things I’ve found in doing research for this article. No longer are some of these items limited to X-Files-like conspiracy theories. They are now a reality, and a pretty scary one at that.
As with so many things, there are two sides to every story. As frustrating as it can be, I think it is important to look at each side in detail in order to make a sound judgment about the rights and wrongs of each issue. Over the years I have learned some hard lessons about being judgmental and bringing my own biases to the table. One of the few great things about growing older is that you can, if you are willing, learn from your mistakes and the mistakes of others and mature enough to appreciate the value of an open mind.
By the time I had finished researching things, I realized that my initial impressions were harsh and made from an uneducated point of view. Luckily, I was not completely in contrast with my gut feelings, but my opinions changed in ways that surprised me. Perhaps the events of September 11th have changed my point of view more than anything else, or perhaps it is a combination of that event and some of my experiences as I age. Regardless, I think that a lot of people out there may struggle with how to feel about some of these advances.
Things are not as black and white as I expected them to be. Rather, there are so many shades of gray that it is almost disheartening. Nobody wants to be wishy-washy. It feels much better to have your ideas and opinions based on a solid foundation of information and experience. The problem is, the foundation is no longer so solid. Instead of bedrock, we have the shifting sands of a changing world, and that can be quite unsettling.
So, if I may be so bold as to ask, please hold your judgment until the end of the article, and please participate by expressing your feelings in the comments area that is linked to on the final page. The more we share, the more we know and the more we know, the more we can grow. (sappy, yes, but hey, I stopped drinking caffeine, so...)
SIDEBAR: It is surprising how many disturbing things you can discover thanks to the Freedom Of Information Act. If you want to blow your mind, try making a request or two and see what pops to the surface.
| Consuming||Page:: ( 2 / 5 )|
That Darn Mr. Bell...
Back in the day, you would fire up the old TV, adjust the rabbit ears and watch Starsky and Hutch as they battled the evil of the world. I remember how these snitches would head over to a pay phone and call in anonymous tips to further the plot. Of course, “Huggy Bear” would already have most of the scoop, but the fact that you could call up the cops, rat on the scumbags who betrayed you and not be found out, well, that seemed pretty cool. You don’t want to be seen as a rat, but still, you don’t want to let the jerks get away with putting the screws to you. It was a moral dilemma with a solution. Unfortunately, it turns out that it was a false sense of security.
One of the first lessons I learned back in the day, regarding privacy at least, was that “800” numbers behaved differently from other numbers. For decades, it has been the case that whenever you dial a toll-free number, you are giving the receiving company some sensitive information. Nobody knew about it at the time, at least nobody I knew, but when I called my credit card company, I was greeted with a hearty “Hello Mr. Sullivan, how can we help you?”. I was like “How did you know it was me?” That is when I found out about what would later be called “Caller ID”. Your phone number came up on their screen, along with call routing information and a few other tidbits. For some reason, I was panicked about it. It just felt bad to have someone know that it was me calling. I felt like it was an invasion of my privacy, and I was not used to it. She talked me down like I was a guy on a ledge, and assured me that the information was only used to help improve relationships with their customers. Dazed, I hung up the phone and reassessed my level of knowledge. How could I be so naive? Oddly enough, that one incident made me more paranoid and skeptical than I had ever thought I would be. It turns out it was only the tip of the iceberg.
The Downsides Of Credit
You get your first credit card, and of course, you buy a few things with it. That is cool. Most of the places you buy are local, because the car you have, well, let’s just say it needs some repairs. So for the first six months you head over to the mall, buy some music, take out some girls to dinner and try to keep up on your payments. Then, the coolest thing happens, and you and your buds decide to head off for Spring Break to a far away beach. You hop into the VW Bus and head on down to the coast for the weekend, take some new girls out to dinner, and head back home so you all can get to work on Monday so you can fix up your cars.
Monday after work, you are at home watching reruns on the tube, when you get a mysterious phone call. You hope it is one of those girls you have been spending money on, but no, it turns out to be your credit card company. They ask you ever so politely if your card had been lost or stolen. You ask them why they ask, and they say that your card was used in an area you don’t usually charge in, and that it was used to buy items that didn’t fit your established buying pattern. Huh? What? They actually monitor what I buy and where? (note to self - never buy beer with this until you turn 21).
That episode opened my eyes when it came to credit. It turns out that those credit companies share your information with just about any company that asks. I wanted to change jobs, which I ended up doing, but when I was offered the job they said it was contingent on a drug test (I just have that look I guess) and a credit check. Credit check I asked? What for? “Why, to see if you have a stable, trustworthy background.” I was like “You can do that?” and he was like “Oh yes, we would not hire anyone without a credit check first.”
The funny (well, odd) part about this was, I called up the credit company and asked if I could have a copy of my credit report, and they told me no, they could only give it to businesses. Imagine that. I could not get my own information, but my employer could. I’m glad that law has changed. Still, it kind of gives you the creeps, doesn’t it? It is very upsetting that someone can access something so private. They track your buying habits? The boss can check your credit standing? All this came as a pretty rude awakening, but over the last few years, things have gotten a whole lot more complicated. Thanks to advances in technology, people can watch just about everything you do, buy and throw away.
SIDEBAR: Credit companies are a mess. They are poorly run, have merged, split and renamed themselves so many times it makes your head spin. But thanks to some cool lawmakers, you have a lot more rights in terms of accessing and controlling your credit information. Call your bank for specific details. An ounce of prevention...
| Locating||Page:: ( 3 / 5 )|
The little tales I just shared don’t even begin to cover what is going on now. When cell phones first came out, they could not track where you were at all. You could call Domino’s from your cell phone on your way home, and then meet them at the door to pay them when they arrived in 30 minutes or less. However, in New York City for example, they now have the technology to track if you are calling from a cell phone, and if you are mobile, they won’t deliver. They want you to go home, enable outgoing Caller ID and call from there so they can verify you are who you say you are and you live where you say you live. Too many crank calls, too many safety concerns and suddenly, you have to surrender your information just to get a slice. Gone are the days of calling in sick from the beach. Gone are the days of pulling the delivery truck over for a quick lunch just a bit off of your route. Why? Because Local and Global Positioning Systems are here to stay.
Where Am I?
Local Positioning Systems (LPS) rely on things such as cell towers and site to site microwave transmissions and are designed for regional tracking. Global Positioning Systems (GPS) rely on satellites more than anything else, and are optimally designed for use on a planetary scale. For civilian applications, LPS systems can be more accurate, as the absolute positioning technology is reserved primarily for military and government use. LPS systems are preferable to local agencies because those municipalities can be in full control of the systems. Should they wish, they can upgrade the LPS grids to be increasingly accurate as technology advances. They can work with cellular and transmission companies to help defer the cost by granting special permits that allow for more cell towers, provided triangulation devices are installed and maintained at the necessary locations. Another advantage of the LPS configurations is that they do not interfere with satellite resources and are not affected by satellite positioning anomalies or events such as solar flares. They can be reserved for use by emergency relief agencies, police operations and other state or city sanctioned bodies who may be in need of the technology, including 911 operations and search and rescue teams. As cellular technology advances and the costs of this technology goes down, more and more municipalities are likely to make use of such systems, all without having to invest in dedicated satellites, which can be prohibitively expensive.
GPS technology relies on satellites to help triangulate your location. It is a fantastic technology and can be extremely accurate, though in almost all cases, the most accurate technology is reserved for military and government use. The global reach of these satellite systems allows for position tracking in the remotest of areas, from the center of the deep oceans to the edges of the frozen arctic. In the beginning, GPS was expensive and usually reserved for major things such as tracking planes traveling in the air, tracking ships sailing the seas and pinpointing locations for the military. Not only is GPS used to track troop movements, but it is now used to help guide munitions to their targets. These “smart bombs” are currently one of the most coveted weapons in the arsenals of the military, as they can help minimize or even eliminate civilian casualties during conflicts.
These technologies are more advanced and less expensive than ever, and consumers are taking notice. Savvy entrepreneurs have developed low-cost systems that can be sold to parents who wish to track their teen-aged children as they drive. They can track not only their movements, but their traveling speed as well. If your kid goes to a party instead of the mall, and ends up going past the speed limit in getting there, you can know all about for just a few dollars. UPS drivers can be tracked as they travel their routes, as can armored car companies and even delivery trucks for the United States Postal Service. If anything goes wrong, someone monitoring the vehicles can be alerted almost instantly. There are devices, such as LoJack, that can help you find your car in case it is stolen. In addition, if you have a car accident or get lost while hiking in the woods, you are able to use your cell phone to call 911 and in most areas, the authorities will be able to locate you in short order, ensuring you receive timely medical attention where needed. When looked at in this context, it is easy to see how people might be overjoyed at the possibilities. However, what happens when these systems are used to invade your privacy?
SIDEBAR: I knew a couple who decided to travel the country and meet the people that they met on Mirc. They bought a laptop, some trip making software and a supported GPS device that connected through a serial port. They were able to find their location on the map in real time within about six to eight feet. That’s cool.
| Identifying||Page:: ( 4 / 5 )|
Tagging The Animals
Perhaps one of the biggest areas where improving technology will affect each of us is identity. Back in the day, the United States Government started a program called Social Security. When citizens became concerned about privacy, the Government vowed never to use the numbers assigned to each individual as a means of identification beyond the filing of Social Security claims. Yet, as we all know, a national ID number is exactly what the Social Security code has become. You must give it to employers, you must give it when you apply for credit, you must give it when you sign up for school, and you must provide it when you fill out your income tax forms. There is no way to opt out of the program and no way to avoid using it if you want to be able to take advantage of your rights in the modern world. At first it may seem harmless, but if you look deep down, you may realize just how dangerous such a number can be.
Who Am I?
Your Social Security number is the foundation of your identity in the technological age. It is a key field in databases that help identify consumers. Your medical records are tied to it. Your drivers license is tied to it. Your paychecks are tied to it. However, for some people, it is not nearly good enough to help verify who you are.
Recently FiringSquad linked a story about the “VeriChip”. Thanks to improvements in micro-technology, researchers are actually developing a chip that can be implanted into the human body and serve as a digital storage device unique to each person. It may contain things like your Social Security number, the address of your residence, emergency contact information and medical alert information. A small chip the size of a grain of rice can be scanned by a small device and instantly provide those who are scanning you with a great deal of personal information. As storage capacities increase, it may even be able to contain your entire medical history, all on that small implanted chip. Without a doubt, the technology is amazing.
Even more amazing are the advances in deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) identification. This is perhaps the most foolproof method of positively identifying a human being. Fingerprints have been used for decades, but when it comes time to identify victims whose fingerprints have been damaged, it can often be a very difficult task. DNA molecules exist in every one of our cells, so as long as there is tissue or blood, victims can be identified. However, as promising as this technology is, there are some very serious privacy concerns surrounding it.
Privacy And The Common Good
On one hand, it is easy to see some of the benefits, as in the case of identifying 9/11 victims or soldiers whose lives were lost in combat. Yet on the other hand, people have concerns, and rightfully so, because DNA is a part of your physical body. One of the founding principles in the United States Bill of Rights involves the right to privacy. Putting aside the fact that such guarantees in the Bill Of Rights almost never came to pass, people get very upset when the Government or any other authority figure starts poking around our bodies. In order to test our DNA, it is usually necessary for authorities to get a sample of it from our bodies. Most legal scholars hold that our bodies are our own property, and that includes our skin, our hair and our blood. Many contend that the governments right to be involved stops when it concerns our bodies, while others state that for the good of our society, it is important to take advantage of any technology that helps in identification. As so often happens, a road that seemed straight when it was first put down often becomes fraught with winding curves.
DNA has been used in criminal cases for many years, and a large number of defendants have been ordered to surrender samples of their DNA so that they can be ruled in or out of a suspect list. You may deny paternity for instance, but a court can order you to supply a testable DNA sample regardless of your claims about your right to privacy. How can they do that? Because it is “in the interests of justice and the common good”. That sounds all fine and dandy, until they come after you. DNA evidence is a very slippery slope. It can be easy to obtain (ie, hair, skin, etc.) and easy to plant should one have a mind to do so.
SIDEBAR: It turns out that DNA evidence has done much more to prove people innocent than to convict them. Through ongoing tests, criminals that have spent years, even decades, have been exonerated and freed because DNA evidence actually excluded them from being the culprit.
| Conclusions||Page:: ( 5 / 5 )|
We are at a point now where you just can’t afford to be naive about privacy and security. More than ever before, agencies are able to track almost every move you make. As we have seen in the last few years alone, there are companies out there that are readily willing to abuse this new technology for profit and prestige. There are the rental car companies that fine you for speeding as they track your movements with GPS. There are the cities and law enforcement agencies that ticket you automatically with photo radar and red light cameras and split the enormous profits with the makers of those devices.
Lawyers and private investigators can track your habits so that they are able to find evidence against you in court. They can track your travel schedule, your cell phone usage, your credit history and depending on your setup, they may even be able to track the movements of your car to refute claims that you were where you said you were. Police agencies can freely listen to cordless phones without a warrant, as the public airwaves do not have the expectation of privacy. They can even track your phone logs and your credit card charges to see if you are buying high-powered light bulbs commonly used in indoor marijuana operations and get a search warrant based on “reasonable suspicion”.
Using advanced image matching technology, they can scan your image against a database of known criminals every time you get captured on film, which may be at the bank, the ATM, the mall, or even the Super Bowl. Technology advances allow even the smallest of agencies to invade your privacy for just a few hundred dollars, and it really does seem like things are getting out of hand.
As of now, there is not much that the laws are doing to protect consumers. These older laws were simply not designed to handle all of these rapid advances, and unless consumers get off their couches and start rattling some cages, it may be a long time before anything is done about it.
What good are our civil rights if we do not act to protect them when they are being violated? Just how far do we have to let things go before we are willing to take a stand? Are we content to just sit back and take it because it is easier to give in then to fight?
If you have not been directly affected by any of these advances, try asking yourself a few questions. Do you want hospitals implanting babies with ID chips when they are born so they can be identified as an American Citizen? Do you want your employer to be able to fire you because they searched your medical history and found that you might be prone to cancer in old age? Do you want to be denied a 30 year loan because your DNA shows that you may be predisposed to suffering from Alzheimer's disease before the loan has gone into year 17?
Do you think I’m being too paranoid? That I’m taking this all way too seriously? Well if you do, then I would hope that you do some digging on your own. Do some studying to find out how many cases there have been regarding the misuse of medical records by employers. Check the archives to find out just how much information the Government may have on you, and how that information has been used and to whom it has been given.
In an age where politicians and reporters are able to get into sealed juvenile records and private detectives are able to buy full dossiers on people with a few mouse clicks and a credit card number, I think you may want to entertain the possibility that there just may be some fire where this smoke is. I’ve been hammered for being paranoid before, but just look at Windows XP these months later and try telling me that none of the concerns I raised about security and privacy in my articles were justified. I may be annoying, but I’m certainly not foolish.
SIDEBAR: Does the pace of technological innovations worry you? Do you feel helpless in the face of all these attacks on your right to privacy? Or do you think there really is nothing to worry about? Please let us know how you feel in our Comments Section.