- Cell phones that pinpoint your location. Cameras that
track your every move. Subway cards that remember. We routinely sacrifice
privacy for convenience and security. So stop worrying. And get ready for
- Within hours of the attacks on the World Trade Center
and the Pentagon, as federal officials shut down airports and US
began plotting a military response, Attorney General John Ashcroft was
mobilizing his own forces. In meetings with top aides at the FBI's
Information and Operations Center - during which the White House as well
as the State and Defense departments dialed in via secure videoconference
- Ashcroft pulled together a host of antiterrorism measures. Days later,
the attorney general sent to Capitol Hill a bill that would make it easier
for the government to tap cell phones and pagers, give the Feds broad
to monitor email and Web browsing, strengthen money-laundering laws, and
weaken immigrants' rights. There were whispers of a national identity
card and of using face-recognition software and retinal scans at airports
and in other public spaces. And high above it all would sit an Office
of Homeland Security, run by former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, who
would report directly to the Oval Office.
- Such talk usually generates fractious debate between
privacy hawks and security hounds. By now, most of us can recite the
Nightline arguments and counterarguments. But this time the acrimony has
been muted. The terrorist assault on America shifted the balance between
privacy and security. What was considered Orwellian one week seemed
reasonable - even necessary - the next. Politicians who routinely clash
were marching in lockstep. "When you're in this type of conflict
- when you're at war - civil liberties are treated differently,"
said Senate Republican Trent Lott. "This event will change the
between freedom and security," echoed House Democrat Richard
"There's a whole range of issues that we're going to be grappling
with in the next month that takes us to this basic trade-off."
- Almost immediately, there were unmistakable signs that
new surveillance tools would be a linchpin in the war on terrorism. The
FBI met with AOL, EarthLink, and other large ISPs, and there was renewed
talk of using DCS 1000 to let the bureau monitor their email traffic.
- a maker of face-recognition software used in surveillance cameras in
London and Tampa, Florida, and in the databases of close to a dozen state
law enforcement agencies - reported that its switchboards were jammed.
The stock prices of some companies in the security business spiked as
the rest of the market crumbled.
- But truth be told, the US was embracing the Surveillance
Society well before September 11. In the name of safety, we have grown
increasingly comfortable with cameras monitoring us whenever we stop to
buy a Slurpee, grab cash from an ATM, or park in a downtown lot. And in
the name of convenience, we've happily accepted a range of products and
services, from cell phones to credit cards to Web browsers that make our
lives easier and have the secondary effect of permitting us to be tracked.
They're not spy technologies - but they might as well be.
- Americans don't seem to be spooked by these incursions.
"Apparently, consumers don't feel their privacy is threatened,"
says Barbara Bellissimo, owner of a now-defunct dotcom that offered
Web browsing. "That's why there are no profitable privacy
(It might also be why millions of Americans watch reality-based television
shows like Survivor that package round-the-clock surveillance as
- Just how vast is the new surveillance world? Let's start
with cameras. More than 60 communities in a dozen states have set up
cameras that ticket drivers for running red lights or speeding. Casinos
in Las Vegas zoom in on the cards we hold at the blackjack table (see
"Seen City," page 161). Cameras are mounted on police cars,
they hang from trees in public parks, they're affixed to the walls in
sports stadiums and shopping malls. David Brin, author of The Transparent
Society, postulates a "Moore's law of cameras." He sees them
roughly "halving in size, and doubling in acuity and movement
and sheer numbers, every year or two."
- The surveillance net also has a digital arm. With
home to the data entrails of half a billion bank accounts, just as many
credit card accounts, and hundreds of millions of medical claims,
and retirement funds, there exists a significant cache of online data
about each of us.
- Then there's the matter of monitoring our daily travels.
Debit cards like New York's E-ZPass deduct a fee as commuters zip through
tollbooths and track our comings and goings on the road; transit cards
chart riders' subway journeys; employee ID cards can show when we arrived
at work, when we left, and where we went within the office complex. Phone
cards mark who we call and, often, from where. Credit card records etch
us in time and space more reliably than any eyewitness. So do airline
tickets - even if you pay cash. And as for the cell phone: "If you
turn it on, you can be tracked," says Jim Atkinson, a
expert who is president of Granite Island Group in Gloucester,
- OnStar, GM's onboard communications system, offers a
GPS service to its 1.5 million customers. That means that at any given
moment, OnStar can locate each of those 1.5 million cars. (OnStar will
track a car only at the request of the driver or, in some instances, the
police; the company keeps no historical database of car locations, though
if it had the inclination - or was pressured - to gather and store reams
of data, it could.) Mercedes' TeleAid and Ford's Wingcast provide similar
services. As does AirIQ, which Hertz, Avis, and Budget use for their
fleets: If a car is abandoned, AirIQ can locate it; if it's stolen, the
company can disable its motor.
- Adam L. Penenberg email@example.com is the author
of Spooked: Espionage in Corporate America ...due out in paperback this