By Laurent Belsie, writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
In Arizona, some supermarkets now require a fingerprint before they will cash a customer's check. In Japan, companies use eye scans to ensure security. New York State keeps the genetic records of all convicts on file to aid crime detection.
Around the world, new technology is allowing corporations and governments unprecedented ability to fight fraud, detect scams, and enhance security.
But the technology that tracks suspected terrorists and tells marketers that people who drive old Volvos are more likely to eat fat-free yogurt may also be creating a new "surveillance society." As public and private agencies collect motor-vehicle data, medical records, even the fingerprints of millions of people - and sift it with microsecond efficiency - such data could eventually be pieced together to determine who gets a job, a loan, or a health-insurance policy. Unless societies are vigilant, experts warn, the notion of living a private life, where some things are nobody's business but your own, will not survive the next century. "1984 may have simply been too early a date," says Barry Steinhardt, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union in New York, referring to George Orwell's seminal work. "We are now approaching a time when we will live in a surveillance society where all our movements and actions will be monitored." To be sure, a few policymakers and technologists are fighting to reverse these trends. But some high-tech fraud-fighters say the battle is already lost. "The days of privacy are over," says John Valentine, president of Infoglide Corp. in Austin, Texas. "You can't even change your name without being found." Technology is allowing Big Brother to thrive in his new digital incarnation. In the past five years, computers have gotten powerful and cheap enough - and the software sophisticated enough - to collect and sift through millions of pieces of data to uncover subtle patterns of behavior. Because such data live on networks, thousands of pieces of such data can be cobbled together to create a highly accurate and intrusive view of just about anyone, even if they avoid the limelight. That may be good. Governments and corporations are sharing data to track criminals internationally and uncover insurance scams. But privacy experts worry the technology is so powerful and the information-sharing so endemic that governments and companies won't be able to resist broader spying. "Twenty-five years ago, the fear was the big dossier, the big file, the big database," says James Dempsey, senior staff counsel with the Center for Democracy and Technology, a privacy advocacy group in Washington. Now, "all these computers are linked together.... Big Brother and his twin, Big Corporation, have joined forces." Smile and look at the camera Consider the current flap over Image Data, a small Nashua, N.H., company that plans to build a national database of identification photos. Its goal is simple: Crooks can't use fake or stolen IDs if store clerks can call up photos in a data bank. But the company has touched off a storm of criticism after buying more than 22 million drivers' license photos from three states. Worse, according to a Washington Post report last week, the company also got $1.5 million in federal funds and technical assistance from the Secret Service. The federal government hopes to use the technology for much broader purposes than advertised, including fighting terrorism and checking up on illegal immigrants. …