The Surveillance Society
By Adam L. Penenberg

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 your close-up...
Within hours of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, as federal officials shut down airports and US strategists began plotting a military response, Attorney General John Ashcroft was mobilizing his own forces. In meetings with top aides at the FBI's Strategic 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 authority 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 familiar 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 perfectly 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 balance between freedom and security," echoed House Democrat Richard Gephardt. "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. Visionics - 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 anonymous Web browsing. "That's why there are no profitable privacy companies." (It might also be why millions of Americans watch reality-based television shows like Survivor that package round-the-clock surveillance as entertainment.)
Just how vast is the new surveillance world? Let's start with cameras. More than 60 communities in a dozen states have set up traffic-light 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 capability and sheer numbers, every year or two."
The surveillance net also has a digital arm. With computers home to the data entrails of half a billion bank accounts, just as many credit card accounts, and hundreds of millions of medical claims, mortgages, 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 countersurveillance expert who is president of Granite Island Group in Gloucester, Massachusetts.
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 premium fleets: If a car is abandoned, AirIQ can locate it; if it's stolen, the company can disable its motor.
Adam L. Penenberg is the author of Spooked: Espionage in Corporate America ...due out in paperback this January
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