Enjoying Technology's Conveniences But Not Escaping Its Watchful Eyes

By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The tracking of Kitty Bernard begins shortly after she wakes up. All through the 56-year-old real estate agent's day, from walking in her building's lobby to e-mailing friends and shopping and working, the watchful eye of technology records her movements and preferences.

Welcome to the 21st century.

Like many Americans, Bernard uses modern gadgets to make life easier, and along the way creates a data trail that others can access and preserve, sometimes permanently. Every Internet search resides on a computer somewhere. Comings and goings are monitored by security cameras. Phone calls are logged by telecommunications companies.

This explosion in data collection has been embraced by many Americans as a trade-off for convenience and discounts. But it also has raised questions about personal privacy at a time when the government is increasingly tapping into these reservoirs of telling details to fight crime and terrorism.

The new Congress has begun to examine the uses and abuses of data gathering for security and commerce. A look at Bernard's activity one recent day helps to illustrate what they're likely to find: that ordinary Americans leave a trail of digital data that is being gathered, stored and analyzed, and that these people seldom realize it.

6:15 a.m.

Bernard, who is married and has a grandson, pads into the lobby of her Reston condo complex on the way to the building's gym, and almost no one else is about. But a security camera records her. If the government or a divorce lawyer wants the tapes, they can subpoena them.

7:17 a.m.

Bernard returns to her condo after her workout, nestles into a bedroom love seat and fires up her laptop to check e-mail.

She opens a few, deletes 38 more -- junk mail from Weight Watchers, a personal trainer, a firm that sells art posters. The U.S. government claims that even before she's opened them, it should have the right to read them if it needs to. The technology exists to do that.

Bernard is not only trackable, but she is a tracker. She says it helps her be a better real estate agent. Through a Web-based notification service, she can see what homes her clients are interested in and copies of e-mails sent to new clients who register on her Web site, KittyBernard.com.

"I can e-mail them and say, 'I see you've been on my Web site.' "

CONTINUED     1                 >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company