'Little Brothers Learn to Dodge'

Jenny Sinclair

The Age, Melbourne

© The Age, 1999

This article was published in The Age on 24 August 1999, at http://www.it.fairfax.com.au/communications/19990824/A25941-1999Aug22.html

This document is at http://www.anu.edu.au/people/Roger.Clarke/DV/LiBro.html

See also Roger Clarke's Person-Location and Person-Tracking

TECHNOLOGICAL surveillance is leading to a world where people are more likely to lie to governments and corporations, and to adopt false identities to protect their privacy, according to an expert on IT and privacy.

Roger Clarke, a visiting fellow at the Australian National University and information systems consultant, says new technologies that allow people to be tracked both physically and in their day-to-day business are emerging all the time.

Some are new (e.g. the ability to locate mobile phones), but others others are created when old-style transactions (e.g. shopping with cash), move into new electronic formats where records can be kept (e.g. EFTPOS).

"Commercial organisations, coupled with `social control' elements of the public sector, are seeking greatly increased sources of personal data throughwhich they can exercise power over consumers and citizens," Clarke writes, in a paper to be presented at a privacy conference in Hong Kong next month.

He says Australians are more likely than before to play tricks on governments and agencies to check on what happens to their data; a prime example is deliberately mis-spelling names in personal records and checking where those spellings turn up.

Australians are also particularly protective of their rights to privacy, Clarke says, but the protections here are not up to the challenge of the new technologies. Most laws and safeguards were designed for specific circumstances, often those that existed in the '70s and '80s, and can't cope with the new situations.

New linkages between sets of information were a particular threat to privacy. At the moment, for instance, a person's political activities are not linked to information about their family. If the two came together, there would be more potential to threaten people based on their activities.

He said that "imposed identifiers" (usually computer chips in the body) would be more widely used in the future, perhaps to help track senile patients who wander off. Those kinds of useful applications could be used to mask the introduction of potentially more intrusive actions. For instance, incorporating global-positioning devices in mobile phones could be justified as a way to find lost people, but could also be used to find people who didn't want to be found.

While mobile phones are already one of the best-known ways to track people, there are many other ways for authorities and private organisations to know where you are and what you're doing, Clarke says.

As companies moved away from paper to electronic record keeping, it was easier to find data on people. This negated the "inherent privacy protections" of more conventional and less easily manipulated record-keeping.

How invasive tracking was depended on methods used, Clarke said. For instance, if people had a choice about the record being kept, they were likely to look at some kinds of information as being more "legitimate" to keep than others, he said.

Methods that used biological markers, like fingerprints, were more "sinister" than card-based methods, he said. Even power records could be used to tell what people were doing; Clarke points out that power use surges usually indicate that someone is at home.

Tracking could invade privacy in several ways; patterns of behavior could be used by the State to pick out suspicious individuals even if they had not actually done anything.

There would also be greater scope for blackmail and extortion as personal details became less private. What Clarke calls "dataveillance" could even be used to generate overwhelming circumstantial evidence in courts, undermining the presumption of innocence, he said.

And an environment of general surveillance would deter people from being politically active because of the perceived risk. People whose safety is at risk from others (e.g. battered wives or prison officials) could be physically endangered by the new technologies if they revealed where those people were, Clarke said. The more people know about surveillance technologies, the less likely it is they will become entrenched, Clarke says, but many people are unaware of the extent of the information gathering capabilities now being developed and how they can be used.

He said caller-line ID had been marketed in Australia as a social service, but it was more likely to be used to identify callers to companies for purposes such as "redlining" - moving a caller to the end of the queue because they are not considered desirable customers.

In response to the new surveillance methods, new technologies are emerging to allow individuals to resist tracking and the invasion of privacy. One is the Platform for Privacy Preferences (www.w3c.org/p3p), a system that allows Internet users to create a profile detailing what information they are willing to reveal, which can be matched against what a site will ask for and even reject sites on the grounds of inadequate privacy policies.

Another interesting development is the creation of fake personas that can prevent any connections being drawn between a person's different activities, Clarke said.

Clarke said he wasn't against all forms of data collection - in established customer relationships, people might be happy to get targeted mail, for instance - but he believed that most new technologies with surveillance potential were brought in without enough public debate or opportunities to make a choice, for example, the City Link tag system, which favors an identifying tag over more anonymous options.

In the battle of privacy versus surveillance, there will be no clear winner, he said.


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Created: 29 August1 1999

Last Amended: 29 August 1999

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