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Not Dark Yet

By Scott Bradner

In yet another area technology is again outpacing the ability of society to understand and deal with its ramifications. It is getting easier for technology providers to keep track of their users. Consider these developments of the recent past.

The cashier at the airport records your license number as you exit, "for inventory purposes". Automatic toll collecting machines keep track of just when you pass by, so they can provide you with a detailed bill (and someday perhaps a speeding ticket if you took too little time to go from entrance to exit). Swisscom, the Swiss telephone company, has records detailing every move that a million of its cell phone users have made over the last 6 or more months, accurate to within a few hundred meters.. A US luxury car manufacturer advertises that with a call to their 24 hour help desk you can get directions from where you are to where you want to go; they don't happen to mention that the car is using satellites to keep track of where it is and can, upon a request via radio, report its location. The FCC is requiring all US providers of cellular phone service to be able to accurately report on the location of the origin of any cell phone call, to help support 911 emergency call centers. Fortune magazine reports that NTT in Japan has a prototype system with which they can report, on request, the location of any cell phone in their system that is turned on, down to the floor of the building that the phone is on. Many US trucking companies use radio tracking systems to monitor the location of their vehicles. This is more Orwellian than Orwell ever was.

Who is it that is the keeper of all this tracking data? In almost all cases it is private industry, a group that has not shown all that much restraint in exploiting any information they might have on individuals. This is not an area where we should be complacent and trust the good intentions of the business community. Specific and strict legislation should be quickly passed to restrict the distribution of this type of information. I doubt that congress would be willing to do the right thing, which is to require that the data be destroyed as soon as the use for which it was obtained has been fulfilled. The law enforcement people will like the idea of being able to track everyone's movements far too much for that to happen. But they should at least require a search warrant and prohibit all other distribution under threat of large fines and jail time.

Meanwhile there is a desire for even more location data. I was at a meeting recently where the "need" to know the physical address of all Internet users was brought up - so that the right locality can tax the user's electronic purchases.

As a balladeer recently sang "its not dark yet, but its getting there." Unfortunately, one does not need eyes all that good to see the darkness approaching.

disclaimer: Harvard is not immune, it records who enters the parking garages, so the above dim view is my own. (One awareness point if you know who the balladeer is.)