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Communications of the ACM

Communications of the ACM

Inside Risks: Be Seeing You!

You get up to the turnstile at a sporting event and learn that you won't be permitted inside unless you provide a blood sample for instant DNA analysis, so that you can be compared against a wanted-criminal database. Thinking of that long overdue library book, you slink away rather than risk exposure. Farfetched? Sure, today. But tomorrow, a similar scenario could actually happen, except you'll probably never even know you're being scanned. True, overdue library books probably won't be a high priority. But there's actually a range of extremely serious risks from the rapid rise of biometric and tracking technologies in a near void of laws and regulations controlling their use, and abuse.

There was an outcry when it was revealed that patrons at the 2000 Superbowl game (some critics dubbed it the "Snooper Bowl") were unknowingly scanned by a computerized system that tried matching their faces against those of wanted criminals, even though this sort technology has long been used in casinos and ATM machines. The accuracy of these devices appears quite limited in most cases today, but it will get better. Video cameras are becoming ubiquitous in public, and the potential of these systems to provide the basis for detailed individual dossiers is significant and rapidly expanding.

Other technologies will soon provide even better identification and tracking. We constantly shed skin and other materials that could be subjected to DNA matching; automated systems to vastly speed this process for immediate use are under development. Even without biometrics, the ability for others to track our movements is growing with alarming speed. There will be wide use of cell-phone location data (which is generally available whenever your cell phone is on, even if not engaged in a call). The availability of this data (originally mandated by the FCC for laudable 911 purposes) is being rapidly explored by both government and commercial firms. It's often argued that there's no expectation of privacy in public places. But by analogy this suggests it would be acceptable for every one of us to be followed around by a snoop with a notepad, who then provides his notes regarding our movements to the government and/or any commercial parties willing to pay his fees. As a society, would we put up with this? Should the fact that technology could allow tracking to be done surreptiously somehow make it more acceptable?

Proponents of these systems tend to concentrate on scenarios that most of us would agree are valid, such as catching child molesters and murderers, or finding a driver trapped in a blizzard. But the industry shows much less enthusiasm for possible restrictions to prevent the inappropriate or trivialized use of such data. An infrastructure that could potentially track the movements of its citizens, both in real time and retrospectively via archived data, could become a powerful tool for oppression by some governments less enlightened than our own. Detailed automated monitoring of the citizenry could probably result in a dramatic reduction in all manner of infractions, from the most minor to the serious. Such monitoring would also fundamentally alter our society in ways most of us would find abhorrent.

Even in current civil and commercial contexts the potential for abuse is very real. Lawyers in divorce cases would love to get hold of data detailing where that supposedly errant husband has been. Insurance companies could well profit from knowledge about where their customers go and what sorts of potentially risky activities they enjoy. Such data in the wrong hands could help enable identity fraud, or far worse. We've already seen automated toll collection records (which tend to be kept long after they're needed for their original purpose) drawn into legal battles concerning persons' whereabouts. Cell-phone location information (even when initially collected with the user's consent in some contexts) can become fodder for all manner of commercial resale, data-matching, and long-term archival efforts, with few (if any) significant restrictions on such applications or how the data collected can be later exploited.

It would be wrong to fault technology itself for introducing this array of risks to privacy. The guilt lies with our willingness to allow technological developments (and the vested interests behind them in many cases) to skew major aspects of our society without appropriate consideration being given to society's larger goals and needs. If we're unwilling to tackle that battle, we'll indeed get what we deserve.

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Lauren Weinstein ( moderates the PRIVACY Forum ( He also co-founded People For Internet Responsibility (

©2001 ACM  0002-0782/01/0500  $5.00

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