A couple of articles at the NYTimes on a very timely subject
There are important distinctions, of course, between government prying and the emerging web of consumer surveillance. But they share a digital universe that facilitates and rewards watching. Spam, spyware and identity theft are only a taste of how exposed we have all willingly become as we enjoy the benefits of the networked world.
If the American public seems a bit confused about the raging debate of security versus civil liberties - Bush/Cheney versus the A.C.L.U. - it may be because the debate itself has been outpaced by technology. In our post-9/11, protowireless world, democracies and free markets are increasingly saturated with prying eyes from governments, corporations and neighbors. For better and worse, free societies are fast entering the world of total surveillance.
The camera network - using software from 3VR Security Inc., a San Francisco company that makes surveillance technology - already knew what the houseman looked like; facial recognition algorithms had built a profile of him over time. With a couple of mouse clicks, managers combed through hours of videotape taken that night by the hotel’s 16 cameras, and found every place he had been - including the back entrance he slipped out of, three hours into his shift. He became 1 of 10 employees dismissed from the hotel since 3VR’s surveillance package was installed last June.
Until recently, the only place where an employee could have been caught that easily was in a Hollywood script. Digital spy cameras can instantly pick people out of crowds on the television show “24.” But real-world video surveillance was stuck in the VCR age, taking countless hours to sift through blurry black-and-white tapes. Stopping a problem in progress was nearly impossible, unless a guard just happened to be staring at the right video monitor.
But surveillance companies, using networks of cheap Web-connected cameras and powerful new video-analysis software, are starting to turn the Hollywood model into reality.
MORE and more cellphones know exactly where their owners are at any given time, and software developers are trying to leverage that ability to bridge the gap between the physical and virtual worlds. These programs aim to “browse” the physical space around you, connecting you to people, places and unexpected bits of information.
Kathryn Hanson, a former telecommunications engineer who lives in Oakland, Calif., was looking at BBC News online last week when she came across an item about a British politician who had resigned over a reported affair with a “rent boy.”
It was the first time Ms. Hanson had seen the term, so, in search of a definition, she typed it into Google. As Ms. Hanson scrolled through the results, she saw that several of the sites were available only to people over 18. She suddenly had a frightening thought. Would Google have to inform the government that she was looking for a rent boy - a young male prostitute?
Ms. Hanson, 45, immediately told her boyfriend what she had done. “I told him I’d Googled ‘rent boy,’ just in case I got whisked off to some Navy prison in the dead of night,” she said.
[...] The government and the cooperating companies say the search queries cannot be traced to their source, and therefore no personal information about users is being given up. But the government’s move is one of several recent episodes that have caused some people to think twice about the information they type into a search engine, or the opinions they express in an e-mail message.
The government has been more aggressive recently in its efforts to obtain data on Internet activity, invoking the fight against terrorism and the prosecution of online crime. A surveillance program in which the National Security Agency intercepted certain international phone calls and e-mail in the United States without court-approved warrants prompted an outcry among civil libertarians. And under the antiterrorism USA Patriot Act, the Justice Department has demanded records on library patrons’ Internet use.
Those actions have put some Internet users on edge, as they confront the complications and contradictions of online life.
[...] Privacy is an elusive concept, and when it comes to what is considered acceptable, people tend to draw the line at different points on the privacy spectrum.
Ming-Wai Farrell, 25, who works for a legal industry trade association in Washington, is one of those who draw the line somewhere in the middle. They are willing to part with personal information as long as they get something in return - the convenience of online banking, for example, or useful information from a search engine - and as long as they know what is to be done with the information.
Yet these same people are sometimes appalled when they learn of wholesale data gathering. Ms. Farrell said she would not be able to live without online banking, electronic bill paying or Google, but she would consider revising her Web activity if she had to question every search term, online donation or purchase.
“It’s scary to think that it may just be a matter of time before Googling will invite an F.B.I. agent to tap your phone or interrogate you,” Ms. Farrell said.