Privacy takes a big step back

September 2, 2002


Computer databases already have a lot on us: Credit cards keep track of airline ticket purchases and car rentals. Supermarket discount programs know our eating habits. Libraries track books checked out. Schools record our grades and enrollment.

On top of that, government agencies amass information on large cash transfers, our taxes and employment, driving history--and visas, if we're a foreign citizen. What if computers become smart enough to link all those government and commercial resources and discern patterns from people's electronic traces? Could they help predict behavior? Prevent terrorist attacks?

One of many technology projects begun or accelerated after Sept. 11, an effort headed by former National Security Adviser John Poindexter, is trying to find out.

Such new tools are meant to make us feel safer and more secure. But they also stir concerns that we are unwittingly building a surveillance society.

The latest security-driven technologies include camera systems that compare faces with police mug shots and identification systems based on fingerprints, retinal scans or other biometrics. Already, a computerized profiling system means more screening for some airline passengers based partly on whether they paid cash or bought one-way tickets.

Individually, such technologies appear benign. But taken together, civil libertarians and some technologists say, they open the door to unprecedented intrusions into our lives.

Computers linked to cameras could one day allow profiling based on movement: "Are you walking funny? Whistling funny?" suggests David Holtzman, former chief technology officer with Network Solutions.

We're still a long way from a society where government tracks and records our every move. Poindexter's work at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is just that--research. His group is working with simulations, deferring decisions on what databases to include and how governments would get industry's cooperation. He acknowledges the privacy concerns and says policy-makers are beginning to discuss how to address them.

So far, potentially intrusive security measures have been limited in their use.

Identix Inc. lent police face-recognition cameras to help scan visitors to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island during the Memorial Day weekend. Only a few U.S. airports, including Boston's Logan International, have so far tried out such systems from Identix and its competitor, Viisage Technology Inc.

Airports and airlines, meanwhile, have also been exploring biometric ID systems to control employee access and give frequent travelers faster security clearances. But they are largely awaiting guidance and standards from the newly formed Transportation Security Administration, which is still accepting proposals for pilot programs.

What has changed most since Sept. 11 is the threshold for tolerance among citizens.

"Things that maybe were going nowhere before Sept. 11 got a lot of push," said Lee Tien, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The technologies' defenders say privacy fears are often overblown while capabilities are inadequate for monitoring and recording everybody's whereabouts.

Nor, they say, is there interest.

But technologies have a way of starting out narrowly focused, then slowly expanding in functions and capabilities.

In the San Francisco area, for instance, a system for collecting tolls electronically will soon be used to monitor motorists' commuting patterns. A satellite positioning system designed to assist in navigation was used by a rental car company to fine drivers for speeding.

Private companies like LexisNexis, meanwhile, are trying to help government agencies perform background checks more quickly using authentication techniques developed for the financial industry.

Norman Willox, chief privacy officer at LexisNexis, said privacy concerns are valid and can be addressed by building in safeguards. But others say elected officials-- not technologists--should be deciding how much such tools should pry.

Ultimately, such systems could be so thorough--and trusted--that innocent people could be committing the "crime of being the wrong person at the wrong place at the wrong time," said Barry Steinhardt, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Maurice Freedman, president of the American Library Association, said authorities seizing Internet usage logs and computerized records of books currently checked out could try to infer--not always correctly--one's political beliefs based on what one reads.

Dozens of such seizures were made after Sept. 11, though libraries aren't legally allowed to elaborate--or even disclose the request, Freedman said.


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