In an information age when we're required to hand over confidential information to make a purchase, drive a car, or visit a doctor's office, our privacy is being relegated to the junk heap of antiquated, obsolete ideas. Nowhere is this more evident than in the telecommunications industry, where technological breakthroughs that add convenience to our lives are simultaneously giving corporations and government agencies almost unlimited access to our most private moments.
For example, Pudding Media has introduced an Internet phone service that uses what people are talking about over the phone to generate targeted advertisements, which are then displayed on the screen. In order to do so, however, the California-based company must eavesdrop on its customers' phone calls.
"Voice-recognition software monitors the calls, selects ads based on what it hears, and pushes the ads to the subscriber's computer screen while he or she is still talking," writes Louise Story in the New York Times. For example, a conversation about movies "will elicit movie reviews and ads for new films that the caller will see during the conversation."
But there's more. Global Positioning System (GPS) chips, the same technology used in many new cars to help drivers navigate unknown territory, track a cell phone's every movement in real time. Such technology is marketed to parents as a tool for keeping tabs on their children, to employers as a means of monitoring their employees' whereabouts, and to young people for social networking so they can track each other down.
Yet despite the sales pitch, not all uses of this technology are benevolent. As journalist Laura Holson explains, "If GPS made it harder to get lost, new cell-phone services are now making it harder to hide." Although this tracking function can be turned off in cell phones, Holson notes that "GPS service embedded in the phone means that your whereabouts are not a complete mystery."
Attorney Kevin Bankston, with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, sees this as a serious breach of privacy. "We seem to be getting into a period where people are closely watching each other. There are privacy risks we haven't begun to grapple with." Charles S. Golvin, a wireless analyst at Forrester Research, admits that there is a Big Brother component to the use of GPS in wireless phones. "The thinking goes," he explains, "that if my friends can find me, the telephone company knows my location all the time, too."
However, if the phone company knows where you are, it stands to reason that the government does as well. Indeed, the rate at which corporations, from banks to retail stores to phone companies, are turning over their customers' private information to government agents for tracking and spying purposes is staggering. As an ACLU report details, "Many companies are willing to hand over the details of their customers' purchases or activities based on a simple request from the FBI or other authorities."
In 2002 alone, Bell South received 16,000 subpoenas from government agents and 636 court orders for customer information. And it's not just that the requests for customer information are becoming more frequent; they're also getting broader and have been characterized as "shotgun approaches" or "fishing expeditions."
Moreover, the FBI and other government agencies are demanding greater legal authority to be able to force companies - especially cell phone companies - to turn over customer information. "They have pushed for an aggressive interpretation of the statute that would allow it to monitor certain Internet content without a warrant and to collect tracking information about the physical locations of cell-phone users," the ACLU reports, "turning cell phones into what, for all practical purposes, are location tracking bugs."
Now the Bush administration is prodding Congress to grant retroactive legal immunity to the telecommunications companies that have allowed government agents access to their customers' private-phone-call data. If Congress passes such a law, it would put an end to the dozens of lawsuits that have already been filed against phone companies alleged to have violated federal privacy laws by handing over customer data to the government. It would also put an end to any pretense that our government has our best interests at heart.
Our surveillance state is not unlike a boa constrictor in the way it operates. Before swallowing its prey whole, it slowly squeezes the life out of its victims. But in our case, it's our privacy rights that are being squeezed out. Unfortunately, most Americans have bought into the idea that the latest breakthroughs, gizmos, and gadgets will make our lives easier. But we're failing to heed the warning signs.
Rest assured, given the technological advances being made every day in cellular technology, it won't be long before a single device comes along that will allow us to connect to the entire world and store all our personal information, from Social Security number and bank accounts to e-mail and medical history. But when that day comes - and it won't be long - do you really want the government to have unfettered access to your personal and private information?
After all, the next phone call you receive could be from Big Brother himself.
Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. He can be contacted at (firstname.lastname@example.org). Information about The Rutherford Institute is available at (http://www.rutherford.org).