Monday, December 04, 2006

Privacy, is it gone forever?

Technology is advancing at a breakneck pace. It seems that every time I turn around there is a faster, smaller computer, or a thinner, larger television. The Hubble telescope is providing images of unimaginable beauty from deep space and our phones have become little mixed media centers. We live in interesting, and data filled times. But how does this rush for technology affect our privacy? Can the laws protecting our rights keep up?

ZDNet reports on recent information concerning the FBI's abilities to tap cell phones:

The FBI appears to have begun using a novel form of electronic surveillance in criminal investigations: remotely activating a mobile phone's microphone and using it to eavesdrop on nearby conversations.

The technique is called a "roving bug," and was approved by top U.S. Department of Justice officials for use against members of a New York organized crime family who were wary of conventional surveillance techniques such as tailing a suspect or wiretapping him.

Nextel cell phones owned by two alleged mobsters, John Ardito and his attorney Peter Peluso, were used by the FBI to listen in on nearby conversations. The FBI views Ardito as one of the most powerful men in the Genovese family, a major part of the national Mafia.
A roving bug, turning your cell phone into a microphone, transmitting everything that is said in your vicinity. This leads to all kinds of questions about privilege (you know, lawyer/client - doctor/patient - husband/wife, stuff like that) and potential abuses. They do not even have to do it the old fashioned way by planting a physical bug, it can all be done with software.

Kaplan's opinion said that the eavesdropping technique "functioned whether the phone was powered on or off." Some handsets can't be fully powered down without removing the battery; for instance, some Nokia models will wake up when turned off if an alarm is set...

...The U.S. Commerce Department's security office warns that "a cellular telephone can be turned into a microphone and transmitter for the purpose of listening to conversations in the vicinity of the phone." An article in the Financial Times last year said mobile providers can "remotely install a piece of software on to any handset, without the owner's knowledge, which will activate the microphone even when its owner is not making a call."

Nextel and Samsung handsets and the Motorola Razr are especially vulnerable to software downloads that activate their microphones, said James Atkinson, a counter-surveillance consultant who has worked closely with government agencies. "They can be remotely accessed and made to transmit room audio all the time," he said. "You can do that without having physical access to the phone."
Setting aside the very real potential abuses by our government with this technology, anything that the .gov can do, the hackers can do better.

Do you think you are safe in your car? Not if you have OnStar:

Surreptitious activation of built-in microphones by the FBI has been done before. A 2003 lawsuit revealed that the FBI was able to surreptitiously turn on the built-in microphones in automotive systems like General Motors' OnStar to snoop on passengers' conversations.

When FBI agents remotely activated the system and were listening in, passengers in the vehicle could not tell that their conversations were being monitored.
Firehand over at Irons in The Fire is also commenting on the cell phone issue.

Next we have security screening at airports. The TSA has just given me another reason to hate airports. I love to fly, but hate getting to the plane. It is the part about being treated guilty until proving yourself innocent that gets my goat.

PHOENIX (AP) - Sky Harbor International Airport here will test a new federal screening system that takes X-rays of passenger's bodies to detect concealed explosives and other weapons.

The technology, called backscatter, has been around for several years but has not been widely used in the U.S. as an anti-terrorism tool because of privacy concerns.

The Transportation Security Administration said it has found a way to refine the machine's images so that the normally graphic pictures can be blurred in certain areas while still being effective in detecting bombs and other threats.

So, who wants to bet on who gets randomly screened the most - Busty blonds, or men of Middle Eastern decent between the ages of 20 and 35? My money is on the blonds.

Crime, Guns, and Video Tape has more on this issue.

Cities across the United States are installing cameras to monitor and record peoples actions in downtown and other "high crime" areas.

Added to the mix are states like Oregon and California attempting to change the way fuel taxes are being collected. It seems that the hybrids and electrics are not paying their fair share of taxes, so the states are developing taxes based on driven miles. This would require GPS tracking devices to be installed in every vehicle. The information collected would be uploaded at the gas station and proper taxes collected then.

What expectation of privacy do we still have? Our driving habits tracked by GPS, videos taken of us while on public streets, the .gov (or anyone with the software) listening in on our conversations via cell phones, and exchanging dignity for perceived safety at airport security areas.

Do I think there is some grand conspiracy at hand to enslave America? No. But I do think that once the technology is available, it will be used. The temptation to bypass any oversight or procedures that are put into place to secure our privacy will be hard for some to overcome, and these procedures have not been written at the pace that new technology is developed.

Yep, we live in some interesting times.


Anonymous said...

Now this pisses me off.

Anonymous said...

But the question is, is it gone forever, and the answer is "no."

Fits said...

If law enforcement is conducting such clandestine investigations via a court order, then welcome to the real world. Those with nothing to hide shouldn't be perturbed, right?

Hell no. I'm not a whiney privacy maven but if the coppers are doing this with carte blanche then it's wrong.

What technology can discover technology can also hide, and anyone with the resources can protect his or herself from unwanted intrusion but modern problems need modern laws to protect the innocent.

Anonymous said...

I have my private parts to hide for one...

I'd like to see you guys get behind the 4th amendment for a change, the injunction against unreasonable searches and seisures against a persons or his papers.

Your guns are going to puny against the tanks, and the bombs from the air, if and when they come.

Let's get back to what this country was all about, and not let terrorists and criminals call the shots and dictate our desicions.