In the era of computer-controlled surveillance, your every move could be captured by cameras, whether you’re shopping in the grocery store or driving on the freeway. Proponents say it will keep us safe, but at what cost?
Pathmark archives every transaction of every customer, and the grocery chain is hardly alone. Amazon knows what you read; Netflix, your taste in movies. Search engines such as Google and Yahoo retain your queries for months, and can identify searches by IP address—sometimes by individual computer. Many corporations log your every transaction with a stated goal of reducing fraud and improving marketing efforts. Until fairly recently it was impractical to retain all this data. But now the low cost of digital storage—you can get a terabyte hard drive for less than $350—makes nearly limitless archiving possible.
So what’s the problem? “The concern is that information collected for one purpose is used for something entirely different down the road,” says Ari Schwartz, deputy director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington, D.C., think tank.
This may sound like a privacy wonk’s paranoia. But examples abound. Take E-ZPass. Drivers signed up for the system to speed up toll collection. But 11 states now supply E-ZPass records—when and where a toll was paid, and by whom—in response to court orders in criminal cases. Seven of those states provide information in civil cases such as divorce, proving, for instance, that a husband who claimed he was at a meeting in Pennsylvania was actually heading to his lover’s house in New Jersey. (New York divorce lawyer Jacalyn Barnett has called E-ZPass the “easy way to show you took the offramp to adultery.”)
On a case-by-case basis, the collection of surveillance footage and customer data is usually justifiable and benign. But the totality of information being amassed combined with the relatively fluid flow of that data can be troubling. Corporations often share what they know about customers with government agencies and vice versa. AT&T, for example, is being sued by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based civil liberties group, for allowing the National Security Agency almost unlimited access to monitor customers’ e-mails, phone calls and Internet browsing activity.
“We are heading toward a total surveillance society in which your every move, your every transaction, is duly registered and recorded by some computer,” says Jay Stanley, a privacy expert with the American Civil Liberties Union.
The debate over surveillance pits the tangible benefits of saving lives and dollars against the abstract ones of preserving privacy and freedom. To many people, the promise of increased security is worth the exchange. History shows that new technologies, once developed, are seldom abandoned, and the computer vision systems being adopted today are transforming America from a society that spies upon a small number of suspicious individuals to one that monitors everybody. The question arises: Do people exercise their perfectly legal freedoms as freely when they know they’re being watched? As the ACLU’s Stanley argues, “You need space in your life to live beyond the gaze of society.”
Surveillance has become pervasive. It is also more enduring. As companies develop powerful archiving and search tools, your life will be accessible for years to come in rich multimedia records. The information about you may be collected for reasonable purposes—but as its life span increases, so too does the chance that it may fall into unscrupulous hands.
Several months after I stayed at the Talbott Hotel, Derene, my editor, called Troy Strand to ask if he still had the security camera images of me at the hotel. He did. My niece Emma’s Statue of Liberty shots are probably stored on a computer, as are the records of all my Pathmark purchases. Ramos could query my shopping trip of, say, Jan. 13, 2005, and replay video keyed precisely to any part of the register tape—from the fifth item scanned, pork chops, to the tenth, broccoli. That’s innocuous and even humorous on the surface, but the more I thought about the store’s power, the more it disturbed me.
“I would never do that,” Ramos assured me. “But I could.”
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