The Picture Of Conformity

Passengers walking through a public transportation center during a holiday rush may not spot the surveillance equipment, but nowadays they know it's photographing them.
Passengers walking through a public transportation center during a holiday rush may not spot the surveillance equipment, but nowadays they know it's photographing them. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

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By Lynne Duke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 16, 2007

Don't look now. Somebody's watching.

But you knew that, didn't you? How could you not? It's been apparent for years that we're being watched and monitored as we traverse airports and train stations, as we drive, train, fly, surf the Web, e-mail, talk on the phone, get the morning coffee, visit the doctor, go to the bank, go to work, shop for groceries, shop for shoes, buy a TV, walk down the street. Cameras, electronic card readers and transponders are ubiquitous. And in that parallel virtual universe, data miners are busily and constantly culling our cyber selves.

Is anywhere safe from the watchers, the trackers? Is it impossible to just be let alone?

There, in that quintessentially public space, the Mall, came Michael Thrasher, 43, an ordinary guy, just strolling on a lovely recent day. We found him near an entrance to the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, where a tower-high surveillance camera loomed overhead.

Thrasher didn't immediately see it. But when asked his feelings about privacy and surveillance, he said, "You just feel like there's always someone looking at you."

He's a baggage handler at Reagan National Airport, so he knows that he's watched at the workplace. Since Sept. 11, 2001, transit hubs have been laden with layer upon layer of surveillance: cameras, biometrics, sensors, even a new thing called the "behavior detection officer."

And it's good, Thrasher says, that someone's watching out for the bad guys. "Look what kind of world we're in now."

But Thrasher doesn't like the way his private space is shrinking. Like surfing the Web and knowing his data trail can easily be mined: "If I'm not doing anything illegal, why is it any of their business?"

Like being on the telephone and believing it could be tapped: "In the back of my mind, I'm thinking anybody could be listening to whatever I say."

And just going about one's daily business, walking down the street, going to the market?

"It just feels like there's no privacy now at all when you're doing public stuff."

Suddenly, he sees the camera, his exclamation point, and throws his hands in the air.


CONTINUED     1                 >

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