Virtual Peeping Toms
The computer age leaves us naked to Big Brother.
By Mel Parkinson
NOVEMBER 24, 1997: In the cyber-thriller The Net, Sandra Bullock's life is turned upside down by sinister computer hackers. They tamper with her identity, sell her home, give her a criminal record and erase any connection to her past. She's thrust into a virtual limbo, unable to prove her identity in a world of digitized data. It had all the elements of a hit Hollywood script adventure, romance, intrigue and was set in a technical playground ideal for the Net-dependent nerds of the '90s.
But what happened to Bullock is not restricted to movie back lots, and high-tech hacking isn't necessary to delve into someone's personal domain. As computers have made the transition from mainframe to laptop, they've increased our ability to link to people around the world, simplified day-to-day work tasks and provided us with entertainment.
Yet advanced technology is a Pandora's box. Though no one can argue with the benefits hi-tech gadgets provide, few are aware of how intertwined we've become. In today's free-flow of information, finding personal information on anyone is just a click of the mouse away. Even simple retail transactions provide marketers with information that might make your mother blush. Everyday, you're being watched, monitored and broken down into numbers the hottest commodity in the information age.
"As with all inventions, from fire to nuclear power, there's always a dark side," says Las Vegas computer guru Bill Kunkle. "Information has become so commonplace that the type of things we were once aghast at being asked can be bought and sold for two bucks and a self-addressed stamped envelope."
Once you walk in the office door, you surrender a chunk of your privacy. Employers are able to listen in on phone calls made during business hours, monitor messages left on your voice mail system and read e-mail sent over company intranet. Commercial software developments allow employers to tap into your computer, check files, read documents and access computer disks being used on any machine. A study conducted by the American Management Association found that 35 percent of major U.S. companies monitor their employees by recording phone conversations and voice mail messages, checking computer files and e-mail, or videotaping them working.
LittleBrother is a network of Net-monitoring and -blocking software used by high-security agencies such as NATO and the U.S. Navy, as well as several Fortune 500 companies. LittleBrother watches where employees go online, how long they stay at any site, what they download, and allows employers to block sites that aren't work related. The software also allows employers to locate and block the use of networked games. No more mid-day Sim City 2000 sessions.
Chip Dehnert, a representative of Kansmen Corporation, the makers of LittleBrother, says such snooping is necessary for businesses trying to protect themselves from lawsuits over unsavory material making its way into the office via modem. According to a survey commissioned by Novell, one in four male workers said they know someone at work who used the Net to "access pornographic or antisocial material during work hours."
Subsequent studies by other market research companies found that 53 percent of employees with Internet access at work spend up to four hours per week surfing for personal reasons and that one-fourth of surveyed workers admitted to having played their most recent computer game at the office.
In light of such transgressions, keeping an eye on employees sounds like a savvy maneuver. But as Dehnert himself admits, it brings up an interesting question: How much privacy are people entitled to once they've clocked in? While courts have upheld that employers can't tape you while you're taking five in the break room, the issue of on-the-clock snooping isn't so clear-cut. Nor is the reaction from workers. While many defend their right to privacy at home, office or supermarket, others say they don't expect to have complete anonymity while at work.
"I don't like the idea of being watched all the time or having someone looking over my shoulder," says Amy Longsdale, a customer service rep in Las Vegas. "But I wouldn't bring personal stuff to work without expecting that it might get out. I'm not getting paid to talk to my friends on the phone."
According to a recent article in Time, legal medical privacy violations take place every day. The article mentions several cases cited by Dr. Denise Nagel, executive director of the National Coalition for Patient Rights. Take Sara Lee. According to Nagel, the food company planned to join forces with Lovelace Health Systems to match employee records with work-performance reports to find workers who might benefit from antidepressants. Time also reported that at least one-third of all Fortune 500 companies regularly review health information before making hiring decisions.
The federal government is currently trying to get a handle on medical information leakage, offering legislation to protect health insurance and medical records from online hackers and outside parties. But the measure has still gotten some heat from different privacy advocacy groups across the country that feel it doesn't go far enough. The proposal would broaden law enforcement's access to private medical records, and it's been suggested that researchers be allowed access to private information without being required to obtain patient consent.
"We applaud the government's attempt to regulate access to a patient's clinical records, but the administration's recommendations fall short of maintaining privacy. This allows patient records to be private to anyone except the government," says Dr. W. Ernest Rutherford, CEO and chairman of the Physicians Information Exchange (PIE).
PIE is a nationwide public company of physicians working to reform health care through information technology. The group is developing a national medical data base that would enable doctors to research data while keeping the patient's identity confidential. The system is currently being tested in a clinic in Louisiana. "Allowing law enforcement the freedom to research patient's records at any time is tantamount to a police state," adds Rutherford. "The most private thing we have is our health record. Once you give police access to our medical records, what's to stop them from doing anything else they want to do?"
Congress began to study the issue of privacy soon after, and a whirlwind of new legislation followed the Supreme Court's action. The most sweeping of the bunch was the Privacy Act of 1974. It set rules for governmental agencies and their means of storing and transferring electronic data. Basically, information acquired by the government for one purpose couldn't be used for another without permission.
Yet while the government was placing restrictions on itself, the private sector was pretty much left to set its own rules. Credit card companies, marketers and advertisers were all allowed to gather, store and disburse information as they saw fit a plan that began to fall apart with the eruption of the home computer era. Now data that was once protected and relatively inaccessible is just a search engine away. The easy abundance of data has earned itself a niche in the world of consumerism. Those nosy by nature may now find themselves employed by an Internet research firm devoted to finding out anything about anyone. Just ask Carole Lane.
As author of Naked in Cyberspace: How to Find Personal Information Online, and as a professional Net researcher, Lane dabbles in the world of online info everyday. "Most people would be astounded to know what's out there," she has said. "In a few hours, sitting at my computer, beginning with no more than your name and address, I can find out what you do for a living, the names and ages of your spouse and children, what kind of car you drive, the value of your house and how much tax you pay on it."
But you don't have to employ a professional researcher to dig up dirt on your neighbor or boss. You, too, can enter the information racket using federal and state record systems and private computer databases vast depositories of personal data. Almost every major event in your life birth, getting a driver's license, voter registration, marriage is available online for public scrutiny, and there are hundreds of businesses waiting to show you how to start spying. "We're at a point now where I don't think a day goes by where we don't get spam (unwanted e-mail) offering information of how to find out about X, Y or Z," says Kunkle. "It's one of the booming businesses on the Net."
Cyber Products spammed Kunkle. But it wasn't Cyber Products that actually sent the unwanted e-mail; a group called Casino Chico did. After a bit of online snooping, you can locate a home page someone has set up listing spammer addresses and ploys. Among them was Casino Chico, a.k.a. R. Jon Scott Hall, a.k.a. Frank Mullen, a.k.a. Spymaster Casino Investigations, a.k.a. Cyber Products:
Learn the Internet tools that are used to investigate you, your friends, neighbors, enemies, employees or anyone else! My huge report "Snooping the Internet" of Internet sites will give you ... thousands of Internet locations to look up people, credit, social security, current or past employment, driving records, medical information, addresses, phone numbers, maps to city locations ...
Some of the information being offered by Cyber Products seems relatively harmless. Information on state or city laws for new transplants, finding employment ads from around the world or compiling genealogy records. But some of the suggestions are a bit more sinister: Find out if your fellow employee was jailed on sex charges or has other "skeletons" in the closet! And though that suggests you start investigating, it doesn't mean Cyber Products is on your side. If they're willing to sell someone else's information, they're willing to sell your secrets, too.
In the meantime, there are several suggestions that technical junkies offer to limit the amount of information you make available. Refuse to speak with telemarketers. Pay cash rather than charging. Think twice about mail-order purchases. Only give your Social Security number when required by law. While Internet surfing, watch out for "magic cookies" invisible electronic traces that record what you're looking at, what time you logged on and follow you from site to site.
But the variety of ways you're broken down, coded by number and stored for future use make it nearly impossible to stay out of the system or at least inconvenient. You could never use an ATM machine your PIN number gives away your location whenever you punch it in. You couldn't register for savings at the grocery store those key chain bar codes store info about what you purchase and help tailor store displays, mailed promotions and in-store coupons to your buying patterns. Hell, you might as well not even get out of bed in the morning because everywhere you go from 7-11 to Main Street someone's watching.
Most of us are unwilling to give up the conveniences the digital era has brought, and are willing to sacrifice our addresses to direct mailers and buying habits to marketers for savings by mail. In the tell-all age of talk TV, most Americans don't seem to want to keep too much private, anyway. There's a sense of apathy on behalf of the general public. People don't know or care about the amount of information about them out there.
One thing is certain, however: Until our morality catches up to our technology, the world is a dangerous albeit well-informed place.
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