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What's nobody's business is everybody's

By Lady Liberty
web posted March 20, 2006

It seems that some people -- in fact, most people -- will give up all sorts of things if they think they're getting something desirable in return. Lately, the thing we all seem to be giving up the most of is privacy. We think we're exchanging it for cost savings or security, or for some other thing that makes sense to us at the time. What too many don't seem to realize is that we're all too often being shortchanged.

We walk into our local supermarket and hand over our "loyalty" card which we're told offers us savings. All we have to do is give up our name, address, and phone number. As an added bonus, we may also receive coupons for frequently purchased items. Now, if this happened as simply as it's explained to us, it might be worth the information we give to get it. But that's not quite how these things work.

First and foremost, studies have shown that the cards don't result in savings, and sometimes we even pay more thanks to the cards (a group known as CASPIAN has put together a good synopsis of some of these findings). And those nice coupons we get? Well, the store knows what to send us because it tracks our purchases.

If you think that's just fine with you because you have nothing to hide, well, consider: the store will know you might be pregnant before your husband does. It will know you have problems with foot odor, and that you need to go on a diet. It could even tag you as a drug dealer because you bought enough cold medicine for your whole family (don't scoff; that's already happened at least once).

The fact that most stores have a privacy policy where your data is concerned is largely meaningless. First, no privacy policy is going to apply if the police come asking for information (whether or not they have a warrant is another matter, but most businesses have historically been compliant with or without the paperwork). Of course, you're not a criminal and don't care about that. But does it matter to you that the store is sharing your data with its affiliates? That doesn't mean other stores in the chain. It means anybody the store does business with and chooses to call an "affiliate." Do you know whether or not each of them has a privacy policy? Even more importantly, do you know if they also sell or share your data?

Such databases will, of course, also come in handy for authorities in places like New York. Health officials there have decided to check the test results coming out of blood labs so they can monitor whether or not diabetics are managing their disease appropriately. Rest assured that medical privacy is (at least in theory) much more assiduously protected than is the average shopping list, and yet that privacy is being broadly breached in New York "for your own good." How long do you suppose it will be before supermarket lists are coordinated with such programs and the "Twinkie Police" will be born?

The advent of cheap radio frequency identifier (RFID) chips is bringing still move invasive innovations to the market. Many manufacturers were quick to adopt the technology as a tool for inventory. But as chips get cheaper, smaller, and more powerful, other applications aren't quite so innocuous. A company called Digital Angel has incorporated GPS so it can track its chips. The company says its chips should be used for indentification and tracking of high value assets. This is a wonderful thing for the owners of those high value assets. The problem arises when we consider the definition of "high value assets." In the next sentence, Digital Angel points out that "Applications for our products include identification and monitoring of pets, humans..."

There are people who will willingly submit themselves for the insertion of such chips because they'll be convinced it will deter kidnappings, prevent lost children from staying lost, and ensure that unauthorized people don't go where they're not supposed to go. What makes me so sure they'll be willing? Because some have already gone ahead and had chips implanted. An Ohio company implanted a couple of its employees who use their chips to access secure facilities. Now the employees don't have to carry access cards or keys that can be stolen or lost. They can, however, be tracked throughout the facility and their coming and going monitored.

Although the FDA has just issued a general warning concerning implanted chips, some "techies" are having them implanted anyway, purely for their own convenience (they use the chips to unlock doors, access secure computers, withdraw cash from their banking accounts and the like). There's no question that this is convenient. So as long as different chips access different houses, what's the problem? First of all, it's been conclusively demonstrated that RFID chips can be hacked. If someone gets a copy of your chip, they've got access to anything and everything you do, no questions asked. Second — and there's no way to put this delicately — if somebody wants access badly enough, all they need is the hunk of skin where you had the chip implanted. Living tissue isn't necessarily required. Personally, I'd rather have my keys stolen than my hand!

One particular chip has received government approval. The VeriChip is intended to be programmed with an identity code that references medical history and other health information. Some people have already been convinced that this is a great idea in the event they're brought to the hospital and are too altered to answer questions or are unconscious. Great idea, right? But there are more problems. As of the end of last year, only 68 hospitals could read such chips. The chances of your chip being read at the closest hospital to you when you need one isn't high. But now you've got a potentially hackable, clonable, reprogrammable chip embedded in you that, whether your local hospital can read it or not, most certainly can be read by the right kind of electronics.

Of course, you're probably not all that concerned that a medical reference number be read by unauthorized personnel. After all, what are they going to do with it? Medical records are private, aren't they? Well, that depends on your definition of privacy. Under HIPAA, medical information can't be released to anyone unless you specifically authorize it. Unless, of course, that person is your doctor. Your insurance company. Law enforcement. Researchers. Or anybody else with a "need to know." So there's little doubt that somebody with such an ID number could easily get full access to your medical records which, in most instances, includes such helpful information as your Social Security Number, full name and address, employer, and more. At the risk of being simplistic, can you say "identity theft?"

Cameras, too, are everywhere. They monitor us in stores and in football stadiums, in parking lots and at our places of employment, and they make sure we don't speed through stop lights. In Great Britain, plans are in place to monitor virtually all vehicles all the time. The system is being sold to the public as yet another way to monitor terrorist activity. But there's already been talk of checking traffic patterns, following the travel of individuals, checking for expired plates, licenses, or speeding, and more. RFID chips, of course, already control automatic toll passes in many countries. But marry those chips with those cameras and a speed governor, or even perhaps with an ignition, and our every move will be within the control of government entities!

Perhaps that doesn't sound so bad to you since you never speed and you keep your registration faithfully up to date. Are you saying that if your child falls from a tree and breaks his arm, or if you wife is in labor, that you might not want to go a little faster? Are you suggesting that the government's massive databases of vehicles and owners will be error free? Despite the fact you're a faithfully law abiding citizen, can you look me in the eye and say you don't find being under constant surveillance just a little bit creepy? And lest you wonder, yes: facial recognition software is being discussed as a method of monitoring pedestrian movement in just the same manner authorities are now implementing for vehicles.

Now, just to prove there's nothing the government doesn't want to know and control, a village in England is asking its residents to sign a contract with the town itself. In that contract, you'll promise not only to be a good citizen, but to be a good parent and to live a healthy lifestyle. Although the contract is voluntary, would you believe there's already talk of making it mandatory? No, I'm truly not making that up to make a point. And although this is happening in England, virtually all of the other anti-crime and anti-terror measures England has implemented have made their way across the Atlantic in a few months or years and I see no reason this will be any different.

You may wonder how it is I managed to get from a simple supermarket loyalty card to a contract with the government that involves virtually every aspect of your life, both public and private. Well, it's not that difficult really. The loyalty cards exist because many people are willing to trade some portion of privacy to save a few cents here and a dollar or two there. RFID chips are touted as wonderful things because they'll offer us convenience when we shop and when we use other services; as an added bonus, one might even find our pet or save our lives. All we need to do is risk our privacy in exchange. Cameras will prevent crime — well, they'll help solve crime anyway. And monitoring traffic is important for highway planning at the least, and it could help to prevent terorrism, too! What's some more of my privacy when you balance it against that, right?

We're used to giving up privacy. It gets easier and easier every time we do it. But in the end, we're on the losing end of the deal. We're enabling supermarkets to go to selective pricing (that's where you pay more than me for the same item because you spend more than me — or, in some more cynical scenarios, where I have to pay more than you until I shop elsewhere because I don't spend enough to keep the store happy). We're offering up our most personal medical information to strangers — lots of strangers, not all of whom are trustworthy. We're telling everybody where we are during every minute of the day. And that's assuming the information kept on us is accurate, something that's a very big assumption indeed.

The loyalty cards, implanted chips, automatic toll passes — all of these things depend on us to use them for their success. It's bad enough that we're forced on a regular basis to supply personal information to various entities. The least we can do is minimize the invasiveness when we can. If we don't, we're going to find ourselves in a local government office somewhere one day all too soon where we'll be told we must sign a contract. And once that day comes, you had better believe it will be enforced, even in the previously private sanctity of our own homes. I don't think it's a real breach of your privacy if I say I suspect that none of us want that!

Lady Liberty, a senior writer for ESR, is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at ladylibrty@ladylibrty.com.

 

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