View Full Version : Who's watching you?

05-12-2006, 09:35 AM
May 12, 2006


Warning: Your jeans size is available on the Internet, grocery stores track your every purchase, and satellite images of your house and yard are a mouse click away.

Whether you are being caught on camera at the traffic light or the ATM, being fast-tracked across the Golden Gate Bridge, or using a thumbprint to pay by touch, there are not many places left to hide -- or maintain your privacy.

Now, add phone records to the list.

Thursday's disclosure that the National Security Agency has been secretly collecting the phone records of most Americans is seen by many as one more affront to the steadily eroding privacy of citizens.

Stores have security cameras, which also are popping up on city streets. Even the proliferation of cell phones, with their picture-taking and video capabilities, means the expectation of privacy is being eliminated in nearly every walk of life.

Privacy-rights experts said people would be astounded at some of the personal information that is in the marketplace and public arena.

"The trend of the federal government asking private business for consumer data appears to be on the uptick. It makes you wonder whether there is a place to be private anymore," said Pam Dixon, executive director of World Privacy Forum, a public-interest research group that focuses on technology and privacy.

Privacy advocates say major phone companies crossed a dangerous line when they willingly turned over to a national spy agency their customers' phone records.

"It signals the pattern of some information that's there and stored somewhere. Someone, somehow, will get at it, whether it's the government, or your ex-spouse," said Dorothy Glancy, a professor at Santa Clara University School of Law.

The Patriot Act, passed after Sept. 11, 2001, as a tool to prevent terrorism, has enhanced the ability of law enforcement to access business records, she said.

But she said citizens should be worried that government intelligence gathering can be misused.

"Some of us saw in Watergate the government can have too much power over people who disagree with the government. And that's dangerous," she said.

But not everyone thinks it's a problem.

Customers at the Verizon store on Fourth Street in Santa Rosa had mixed opinions Thursday about "America's most reliable wireless network" providing data to the federal government.

Jean Maxwell, a registered Republican who lives in Santa Rosa, said the controversy was just another attempt by the Democrats to make President Bush look bad.

"They can buzz into my line anytime," said Maxwell, who wore a sweatshirt emblazoned with U.S.A. on the front. "I'm 83 years old. I've got nothing to hide."

But fellow Republican Marcia Da Pont described the program as a "bad thing" and said she didn't want "Big Brother" watching over her.

"If they have a legitimate reason to access that information, I could see them doing it," she said. "But to do it indiscriminately is not right."

Jayson Avner, who described himself as an independent, said he isn't concerned about the data-mining program. "I don't care that much, unless they're tapping in and listening to calls," he said.

In Ukiah, landscape gardener Herb Thompson was shopping Thursday at Safeway, where store scanners record purchase information and track what people buy. He said he's as bewildered today about the U.S. government's actions at home and abroad as he was in the 1960s when the Vietnam War raged.

"It didn't make any sense to me then and it doesn't now," Thompson said.

He said he fears Americans have become so numbed by violence in their towns and around the world that they are willing to forgo their civil liberties.

"I find it very sad," he said.

Erin Griswold, who works in the Safeway floral shop, had a different take. "If it prevents us from being attacked again, then I don't have any real objection," Griswold said. But she added that the notion of government agents prying into her daily life is bothersome.

"But I don't do anything illegal. I don't have anything to hide, so let them look."

Dixon, the privacy advocate, said she constantly encounters the "I-don't-have-anything-to-hide argument" from law-abiding citizens who don't fret about government prying into their lives.

But she said there is no guarantee the information won't be abused.

"Once they have data, how will they use it? To work with the IRS, to find deadbeat dads? In court? In civil or criminal cases? How else will the logs be used?" she said. "I think we need to have a curb on this, a definite line."

The privacy guardians say there also is risk from the personal data that businesses and private organizations gather. The more information, the more potential for its abuse.

There are lists for sale on Web sites that include everything from the names of people who have asthma to those who got married in June, or contributed to religious organizations.

Also available online are the sizes of jeans that individuals bought, the 1.28 million people who contributed to the American Diabetes Association, or a master file of 801,000 new credit card holders, complete with personal information overlaid with demographic data.

"Technology is the underpinning of all this. It has opened the door for the way for information to be gathered," said Steve Moore, a spokesman for Claritas, a San Diego company that gathers and analyzes public data and sells it to companies for marketing purposes, including The Press Democrat.

Moore said much of the information his company gets comes from U.S. Census data, as well as information consumers reveal about themselves in surveys, on Internet sites or when they purchase a product.

For example, every time a product warranty card is mailed in following a purchase, the personal consumer information is collected and recorded -- and sold.

The best way to avoid sharing your personal information is to be stingy with it, although he admitted that can be very difficult in today's consumer society.

"Most of what they know about you, you told them," he said. "When you complain about invasion of privacy, you need to go to the bathroom and look in the mirror," he said.

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