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Privacy Eroding, Bit by Byte

By Robert O'Harrow Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 15, 2004; Page E01

First there were security cameras, sprouting like mushrooms on street corners and buildings. Then came shopper cards, offering discounts in exchange for details about buying habits.

In recent years, we've seen the emergence of electronic tags or "cookies" on the Internet, software that monitors e-mail, GPS devices that pinpoint our position on the planet, and a growing number of machines that capture finger- and face-prints.


A camera at Constitution Avenue and 11th Street NW was an electronic eye on the Fourth of July. (Stephanie K. Kuykendal For The Washington Post)

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Now comes the news that federal regulators on Wednesday approved the injection of microchips under the skin, enabling physicians with the right gear to know who someone is without having to ask. And yesterday, the omniscient-seeming search engine Google bested itself by announcing a service to probe for information both online and in your own machine. One company official called it a "photographic memory for your computer."

Google says no personal information will be sent back to the company. But if it feels like you can't do anything these days without someone looking over your shoulder, you're not just paranoid. Cheap computers, blazing fast networks and clever engineers are finding more and more ways to keep tabs on where you go and what you buy, generally with your permission. They're even getting better at guessing what you'll do next.

"It's this whole new world. It's sort of like all these little details about our lives are being recorded," said Richard M. Smith, an Internet security consultant in Boston. "We love the conveniences. We love the services. But people kind of instinctively know there's a dark side to this. They just hope it won't happen to them."

To be sure, companies have long gathered personal and shopping information to better market to customers, often with dubious results. Who hasn't received junk mail or telemarketing calls that seem to have no connection with their lives? But those initiatives are fast improving and accelerating as people live more of their lives tethered to cell phones, the Internet and the rest of the wired world, where trading off personal information is part of the price of admission.

Think about a typical day. An advertising service is notified when you check the sports scores on the Web. The EZ-Pass transponder signals when you go through a toll booth. The pharmacy collects personal medication details and sends them along to data companies for analysis. At work, some employees now use face recognition systems to get in to their offices, or they type on machines that trace every keystroke.

"Every move you make is becoming part of your permanent record," said Peter P. Swire, a privacy expert and law professor at Ohio State University. "The trend is smaller, faster, cheaper."

There's no question the data are accumulating, and faster than many people understand. A few years ago, researchers at the University of California at Berkeley estimated that all the information created by humanity by 1999 would double by about now. One of the leading aggregators of personal information, an Arkansas company called Acxiom Corp., has roughly a million times more information about adult Americans and their families than when it first sold stock two decades ago.

Other commercial information services routinely tout their ability to access some 20 billion records. And that's not counting the digital details that come in the form of photographs, videotapes and sensor readings. Most people know companies can mine credit card data, loan records and other transactions. But few know that companies already offer video-mining services as well. One day we might be able to mine the information generated by radio frequency identification chip implanted in our arms. Or we might just use a Google search service custom-made for RFID, as the chips are known.

Not everybody is vexed by these trends. Homeland security, law enforcement and intelligence officials are rushing to take advantage of this wealth of information to protect the country. Web sites like Amazon.com, cell phone services, catalogue retailers, financial services companies and many others are increasingly adept at using data systems to serve customers. Ask people whether they'd give up those services, and many would offer a resounding "no."

David Brin, an author and futurist, believes that recent technological developments have revolutionized the ability of people to see -- through cameras around the globe -- and remember details through almost unimaginably rich warehouses of information that serve as proxies for our limited memories.

He predicts that we will one day be able to "know" almost everybody in the world through instant access to personal information in ubiquitous data systems. He refers to this as the new "village."

"You'll 'recognize' people on any street on Earth," he said, adding that young people who are better at using computer technology, and more comfortable with it, will be leading the way. "That part is inevitable. The village is returning."

But even Brin's optimism, spelled out in his book, "The Transparent Society," has its limits. He worries that so much telling information could be misused by bad people or misguided government leaders. "It's wonderful stuff, but there are horrible possible consequences. We're all deeply worried that the future awaits us with Orwell's iron boot."

"It's important," Brin said, "to remain calm."


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