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Computer Privacy Annoyances by Dan Tynan

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Location, Location, Location

Scared? In the next few years privacy advocates foresee far more Orwellian scenarios. For several years, thanks to Global Positioning Systems (GPS), someone could track your location anywhere on the globe, cheaply and relatively easily. Now surveillance is being supersized; the authorities may soon have the ability to track everyone, everywhere. They may even be able to track the vehicles you drive and the products you buy.

In fact, you probably already have a tracking device in your pocket. By law, new “E911 capable" cell phones must have tracking technology built-in so emergency services can locate you when you call 911 on your mobile phone. (Whether this service actually works depends on where you live; it has yet to be implemented nationwide, due to problems upgrading antiquated emergency dispatch systems.)

But the same technology that brings the paramedics to your rescue may also let the police locate you at other times, or request a record of your ’sightings’ from your wireless company. A divorce or civil attorney could subpoena your location records for use in a trial. Don’t forget the capitalist angle. Depending on the agreement you sign, your wireless company could sell your location information to advertisers—so when you’re driving by McDonald’s, your cell phone might receive a coupon for a free Healthee Burger. Revenues for location-based services are expected to reach anywhere from $15 billion to $40 billion by 2007.

The National Transportation Safety Board has called for all cars to be outfitted with event data recorders—a “black box" that records how far and fast you’ve driven, and whether you slammed on the brakes or were wearing your seatbelt. Ostensibly designed to help investigators determine the cause of accidents and improve safety, EDRs could also be used to monitor your driving, issue tickets, assess mileage taxes, or boost your insurance rates. Progressive Insurance of Minneapolis has started a pilot program offering discounts to drivers who agree to upload their EDR data. Approximately two-thirds of 2004 model cars have some kind of EDR installed, according to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“Telematics” systems from companies such as OnStar or ATX Technologies provide instant-on cellular connections when your car has been in an accident, and a GPS transponder to help emergency workers locate you. But these same systems could be used to spy on you. Rental car agencies have already used vehicle GPS systems to fine customers who exceeded speed limits or crossed state lines in violation of their rental agreements (although public outcry has made them largely back down). Courts have ruled that police may attach a GPS device to a car without a warrant. FBI agents have used telematics systems to eavesdrop on suspects traveling in a car—a practice the courts ruled illegal because the tap interfered with the car owner’s ability to use the system to call for help, not because of privacy concerns.

Electronic passes that let you avoid long toll booth lines have been used in hundreds of criminal and civil lawsuits to document people’s comings and goings. These passes come with Radio Frequency Identification chips inside that broadcast a unique number when scanned. Any time you pass within range of an RFID scanner—which can be hidden inside a doorway or a wall—the tag transmits your information. RFID tags are being built into all kinds of products, from car tires and hand guns to the packaging of consumer goods. (See "All RFID, All the Time" in Chapter 5.) The little snooping chips may find their way into passports and driver’s licenses, and some people are (voluntarily, so far) inserting them under their own skin. In the future, when you walk into a room, it could know who you are and where you’ve been. MIT’s Auto-ID Center predicts that some 500 billion RFID tags may be in use by 2010.

Is personal privacy a dead duck? Only if you believe Scott “Get over it” McNealy. Technologies like GPS and RFID are not inherently bad, but history shows time and again that data collected for a helpful purpose invariably ends up being used for another, less benign one.

History also shows that when citizens raise hell and actively oppose privacy intrusions, the intruders back down or are forced to implement safeguards to keep data from being misused or abused. Not always, but often enough to make it a fight worth waging. The first step is securing your personal privacy at home. The next chapter shows you how.

Table 1-3. Answers to the quiz on page 5.

True or False?

Correct Response

1. My boss can require me to take a lie detector test.

False. A federal law prohibits using polygraphs in hiring, though certain professions (e.g., security guard) are exempt. Employees accused of a crime can also be asked to take the test.

2. My boss can search my office, desk, or bag.

True. Private employers can search your office or desk with relative impunity; they may also be able to search your bag, if such searches are standard procedure in your workplace or you’re suspected of theft.

3. My boss can ask me to submit to genetic testing to determine if I’m an insurance risk.

Unclear. In February 2005 the Senate unanimously passed the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (S. 306), which would prohibit employers from using genetic test results to deny insurance or employment. At press time, the bill was being considered in the House.

4. My boss can fire me because of something he found during a background check.

True. Your boss can fire you for virtually any reason, as long as it’s not violating your civil rights or related to criminal activity.

5. My boss can ask about my criminal history during my job interview.

True. In most states your criminal history, if you have one, is public information that’s accessible to employers. Any arrests without convictions in the past seven years are also fair game.

6. My boss can ask about my mental health history during my job interview.

False. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, employers are forbidden to ask questions that might reveal a physical or mental handicap.

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