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Commentary on Global Issues by Gordon Frisch
August 20, 2001

Privacy is (Virtually) Dead

 “You already have zero privacyget over it!”
—Scott McNealy, Sun Microsystems CEO


        The World Wide Web is aptly named. It’s an artful global trap spun by Big Brother spiders, which ensnare and suck out every last drop of privacy. Many consider such talk of endangered privacy as simple scare mongering or alarmism, and automatically dismiss it as out-of-hand. They do so at their own peril as privacy is under siege in every sphere of life.

            Probing Web risks, Adam Penenberg of Forbes magazine (Nov 29, 1999), asked a Web detective at www.Docusearch.com to dig up as much personal info on himself as possible. In 6 days, Penenberg says, “Docusearch.com shattered every notion I had about privacy … (or what remains of it). Using only a keyboard and phone, he was able to uncover the innermost details of my life.”

            For a small price, such Web detectives can dig up unlisted and cell phone numbers, phone numbers you call, e-mail contacts, salaries, rent, loan and mortgage records, driving records, stocks-bonds-securities owned, and most sensitive of all, social security numbers, which allow access to people’s most private data, including bank accounts and tax returns. Many live under the illusion they are safe because they don’t surf the Web, don’t communicate via e-mail, don’t make online purchases, don’t bank online, etc. What they don’t realize is that whether or not you have ever had a computer or logged onto the Net, institutions, companies and data marketers compile your personal data in electronic files regardless. These files are then accessed and transmitted across the Net daily without your knowledge or permission.

            Perhaps most insidious are dot.com data marketers who are relentlessly building personal profiles on everyone. In real life these data scavengers would be jailed for stalking, but in cyber life such invasion of privacy runs rampant and unchecked. Among other things, they use cookies, which are little codes placed on your hard drive ever time you visit a web site. Cookies leave an electronic trail for data marketers to follow to assist in compiling a dossier on the sites you visit, your interests, spending habits, credit card purchases, etc. Your dossier is then marketed to other vendors, in what many consider a somewhat benign invasion of privacy whose worst aspect may be putting up with junk e-mail, regular mail and telemarketers.

            But no invasion of privacy is ever benign as Web data marketing makes your personal life vulnerable to everyone from curiosity-seeking snoopers, to investigators, to those with benign or malicious intent, such as identity thieves. To get an idea of just how much data marketers can glean from your computer when you logon to their site, go to www.privacy.net. This privacy site will instantly show you the mountain of identification data your computer software reveals about you the instant you hit a site—because it’s your computer data they’re showing you!

            Thanks to Microsoft, your software has a unique numeric code that leaves a digital watermark everywhere you go. Worldwide, 96% of the time, hungry data marketers (essentially all dot.com companies) can instantly pinpoint your ISP (Internet Service Provider) and know your hometown. If you then provide them any further information, such as name and address, it goes in your electronic dossier and you are further compromised. Whenever possible, to minimize risk, always avoid giving out any personal information whatsoever online—and elsewhere. Some web sites to help you immensely in protecting what little privacy we have left: www.junkbusters.com, www.zeroknowledge.com, freedom.net, www.privacyfoundation.org, and http://www.epic.org/.

            But privacy invasion isn’t limited to the Web. The relentless erosion of privacy is progressing in every other area of our lives also, and on an unprecedented scale. Employers have the legal right to monitor employees’ e-mails and online surfing. Cell phone calls can be monitored and your physical location continuously tracked whenever your phone is turned on. Fox News website (Apr 23) reported: “By 2005, [the US Federal Communications Commission has mandated that], 95% of all cell phones must be able to be traced with an accuracy of about 1,000 feet or better.” The Economist says: “Intelligence agencies from the USA, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand jointly monitor all international satellite-telecommunications via a system called ‘Echelon’ that can pick specific words or phrases from hundreds of thousands of messages.”

            We recently dedicated an entire article to the pros and cons of a small medical device called “Digital Angel” that constantly monitors a persons vital physical signs and reports the patient’s exact location and condition anywhere in the world by GPS to a central monitoring facility. The military is already considering an electronic ID similar to Digital Angel for all of its members, and from there the requirement could easily spread to other branches of government, corporations and all walks of life.

            Face recognition software is now pervasive in Orwell’s Britain, and it’s spreading in the US. The City of Tampa used cameras with FaceIt, face recognition software, to spy on all Superbowl attendees, hoping to spot criminals among the crowd (it found 19 people with pending arrest warrants). It’s being used increasingly on freeways, malls and city streets, matching camera-scanning photos and license plate numbers with law enforcement databases to catch criminals. The Pentagon is launching a $50 million project called “Human ID at a Distance,” which includes face recognition software.

            DNA “genetic fingerprinting” is a forensic boon to law enforcement, but DNA info being amassed by the human genome project reveals far more than simple fingerprinting. Insurance companies could use this vitally private info to determine health, future diseases, life expectancy, etc, and selectively penalize patients—reject some and charge huge premiums to others—based on known risk.

            The US Bank Secrecy Act of 1970 makes it mandatory for bank staff to monitor customers’ accounts, create a bank customer profile, and report any “suspicious activities” to government. Government says it needs this information to catch drug dealers and money launderers, despite the fact 99%+ of all banking customers are law-abiding citizens. Government wants to outlaw all powerful e-mail encryption programs, which it says drug dealers, criminals and money launderers use to avoid detection. Using this rationale, shouldn’t cars, telephones and public transportation also be outlawed because criminals use them?

            Among the greatest threats to privacy and human rights is in the international legal arena, where, if adopted, the UN-sponsored ICC (International Criminal Court) would override national legal jurisdictions. This is a terrifying prospect in an out-of-control institution that recently voted the US (probably the world’s greatest defender of human rights) off the UN Human Rights Commission and voted in nations such as Sudan and Libya.

            Privacy and human rights should be foremost on the minds of British citizens as they consider full-fledged membership in the EU, as the UK legal system and the EU legal system are intrinsically different. English (and US) law is based on a “presumption of innocence” and the principle that “everything is permitted unless it is expressly prohibited.” Conversely, the EU’s Roman law system is based on a “presumption of guilt,” meaning a person is guilty unless he can prove his innocence; and the principle that “only codification [i.e., government] can protect human rights.” Under today’s aggressive and power-hungry European Court of Justice, there is enormous risk that “codified rights” could lead to an overly intrusive and oppressive legal climate that was last seen just before WW II in Hitler’s Germany.

            Even so, the English law system is under siege in the US and UK as detailed in an excellent book by Paul Craig Roberts and Lawrence M. Stratton, titled, The Tyranny of Good Intentions: How Prosecutors and Bureaucrats are Trampling the Constitution in the Name of Justice. Among other things, they cite US civil forfeiture statutes, which allow the seizure of a person’s property by the state without trial and without the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard of proof. They say “the random nature of the abuses [of the legal system] is eating away at our rights and slowly acclimatizing Americans to tyranny.” This excellent book is an alarming wake-up call to intellectually lazy Americans, most of who are too busy shopping at malls to care.

            As you can see, Big Brother is really millions of Little Brothers all pooling their information into globally interconnected databases. While the vast majority of those accessing our private info will be legitimate and benign, a few criminals, identity thieves, and excessively intrusive government institutions and faceless, impersonal corporations can completely wreck your day and your life. We must always protect ourselves from a malicious few, but not at the expense of sacrificing our total privacy on the altar of government enforcement and data hungry marketers.

        They [the makers of the Constitution] conferred,
as against the Government, the right to be let
alone—the most comprehensive of rights,
and the right most valued by civilized men.”
—Justice Louis Brandeis, Olmstead v. U.S. (1928)