No Place to Hide

How new tools in the war against terrorism might affect your privacy


New technology makes it possible to keep a much closer eye on people in public places. Cameras equipped with facial-recognition software can pick out known criminals in a crowd at airports, stadiums, and public plazas. Cars and cell phones equipped with location technology make it possible to track down people to within about 10 feet. Meanwhile, sophisticated X-ray machines that can see through people's clothes may be more widely deployed at airports, government buildings, and even corporate lobbies. Many of these technologies have been stymied by privacy concerns in recent years. But now that fighting terrorism is the nation's No. 1 priority, their use is expected to increase.


Terrorists leave electronic footprints. What they buy, where they go, and who they talk to can all be recorded on credit-card, airline, and ISP computers. By using sophisticated software to analyze these databases, law enforcers think it may be possible to sniff out suspicious patterns of conduct--such as the purchase of anthrax by somebody who has visited a crop-dusting Web site. But while data-mining could be a potent tool, it also raises serious civil-rights concerns. The same software that looks for crooks will also analyze the activities of millions of Americans.

Electronic Eavesdropping

Passage is imminent for the Anti-Terrorism Act, which gives the government much wider ability to eavesdrop on calls and e-mail. That won't affect most citizens. But the FBI is also making greater use of the controversial "Carnivore" system, which lets cops monitor what suspected criminals do on the Net. The problem is, it also gives lawmakers tons of data about innocent people. Deployment of Carnivore was largely stalled prior to September 11, but now the FBI is installing it on some ISPs.

National Identification Cards

Americans traditionally don't like the idea of national ID cards, which reek of authoritarianism. President Bush summarily dismissed the notion in September. Still, recent polls show that U.S. citizens are rethinking their aversion to carrying proof of citizenship. More than 100 other countries have ID cards, including Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Finland, and Singapore. They come in many varieties: They can be issued to everybody or just to certain groups. People can be required to carry them everywhere or simply to present them before embarking on activities such as driving a hazardous-materials truck. They can be "dumb," such as a Social Security card, or "smart," such as a credit card. A digital version of an individual's fingerprint could be recorded onto a smart national ID card as a means of verifying identity.

The Big Brother Scenario

Initially, these technologies would be deployed individually. But since they're all built on digital technology, it is possible to combine them. Think of it as surveillance convergence. National ID cards could be used to start a file on citizens. Data from Carnivore, government computers, and credit-card networks could be fed into that file. It could be linked to facial-recognition systems to allow the FBI to arrest someone on its terrorist list after detecting that the person bought potential bomb-making materials at a mall. Nobody is advocating this system. But it is technically achievable, and that scares civil-rights advocates.

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