4 Scary Toys in Big Brother's Toolbox

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BY MEGHAN HOLOHAN. It seems like government agencies are ready to party like it's 1984. In its zeal to prevent another terrorism attack, the U.S. has relaxed laws that protect our privacy, making it easier for the government to keep an eye on you. The following four products could help Big Brother keep watch.

1. Wristy Business: Monitors for Airline Passengers

A senior official at the U.S. Department of Homeland security supposedly has his eye on a new accessory—an EDM security bracelet made by Lamperd Less Lethal, Inc. The scary notion is that this bling will be mandatory for airline travelers to wear on their wrists (at least according to this agency letter on the Lamperd web site). A microchip in the bracelet would contain the passenger's personal information, including: departure and destination locations and times, boarding passes, social security number, name, address, and phone numbers. More importantly, the GPS unit in it helps the government know where passengers are during their entire journey. The strangest part is that the bracelets are also equipped to restrain passengers: in the case of a hijacking, the flight staff can actually activate the bracelet to shock passengers much like a Taser. The friendly DOH is reassuring the press that law abiding citizens need not worry—personal data is only stored in the jewelry during flight and only airline staff will be able to stun wearers.

2. Cell Phone Tracking (aka That thing Morgan Freeman Refused to Do)

Picture 103.pngRemember that thing Morgan Freeman almost quit his job over in The Dark Knight? Well, it's already happening. Albert Lazlo Barabasi has been using cell phones to track people, so that he could better understand human social habits. For a year, the Northeastern University physics professor and his colleagues' monitored 100,000 people in a country outside of the United States, described only as "a large industrialized nation."

The exciting news from this study? That most people stay within 20 miles of their homes. More evidence that we aren't as spontaneous as we like to think. Ethicists balked at the research because tracking people through an item like a cell phone clearly violates U.S. citizens' ideas of privacy. Barabasi says his research included several layers of anonymity so researchers had little idea who they were watching. He claims the upswing of this technology is that transportation could be changed to meet the real needs of people and that it might help doctor's track contagious disease or bioterrorism outbreaks in the future. The downfalls are obvious: the tracked citizens of this industrialized country have no idea they were being watched. Worse still, Big Brother now knows he can track large groups of people for at least a year without anyone being suspicious.

3. Electronic Leashes for Dogs (and why they're coming to humans)

Rocco the beagle's 10-year old owner was delighted when her beloved pet was brought back home. The furry scoundrel had escaped from the backyard, and his return was due mainly to a microchip implanted in his neck. Most pet microchips use RFID and GPS technology, and are smaller than a grain of rice. They also contain huge amounts of data on them that can be accessed by scanner (i.e. where Rocco lived, his owner's phone number, and if his shots were updated when the chip was installed).

This technology won't just be limited to pets though. Applied Digital Systems has applied for and earned the first patent for human RFID chips, called VeriChips. The company says the VeriChips contain a person's complete medical record and will save lives. For example, if someone's allergic to penicillin, a doctor will just scan the person, access that information immediately and prevent a medical error. Genius. Because many of these RFID chips come with GPS capability, you too will be traceable just like Rocco. ADS reps say it has no plans to track people—unless they're lost and families are desperately searching for their loved ones.

Amazingly, the technology is being used to track other things as as well. Food manufactures already use RFID in products, allowing grocery stores to track consumer-purchasing habits, reduce theft, and keep accurate inventory. They claim that as soon as consumers check out, the RFID becomes inactive, but many worry that the companies are tracking where their products go. In the future, expect RFID in clothes—to reduce theft, of course.

4. Online tracking: making the Internet a giant mouse trap

Internet Service Providers have been searching for ways to make extra revenue, and they haven't always been ethical about it. Embarq, a Fortune 500 telecom company, sold its users' personal information to other businesses. The company tested out technology created by NebuAd, without informing its subscribers. Unfortunately the plan wasn't foolproof and the U.S. House of Representatives has been investigating whether this is a privacy violation.

NebuAd works in the ISP, recording every click, creating a consumer profile so that it can send users targeted ads. DoubleClick does the same thing, but only from select web pages. Because NebuAd works within the ISP framework it lurks in the system and sees everywhere you click your mouse. For it to work, ISPs install a sniffer box, which catalogs user behavior as it monitors communication between the user's computer and web sites. Free Press and Public Knowledge contend that NebuAd also includes fake information at the end of a Yahoo or Google search that directs users to a NebuAd website that inserts cookies on your browser. The process supposedly improves the nefarious company's ability to monitor everything you search on the web. NebuAd reps argue that the information they collect is anonymous and web users can opt out at any time. Unfortunately most users don't know if their ISP is using NebuAd.

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August 15, 2008 - 9:52am
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