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This chapter is from the book

Freedom of or Freedom from the Press

In this discussion we've located two broad types of interest in information about specific people: entertainment and education.

We have another type of interest in certain kinds of public persons. We want to make sure that they are executing their public duties with care for the trust placed in them. Scandalous behavior in the Congress, the White House, or the Governor's mansion has always interested us. Some argue that people who act badly in one area of their lives shouldn't be trusted with our interests or allowed to control the spending of our tax dollars. Others argue that just because a person acts badly toward a family member, for instance, doesn't mean we shouldn't trust them with our army and navy. The two types of activities are not the same. We are pretty sure that we don't want convicted embezzlers having control of public funds. We are pretty sure that people who cheat in counting votes shouldn't represent us. We are not as sure if people who lie about matters of sexual preference or matters of their health should be elected. Cultural stigmas might matter more than we would like to think.

In any case, because these people are public people, the news media watches them and reports their activities so that we easily can obtain information about them. The theory is that informed voters make better decisions. And voters should be informed about all aspects of a person who aspires to or holds the trust of the public, even if the people who are being reported on believe the articles invade their privacy.

For example, does it matter if your mayor has a girlfriend? Is our answer different if the official story is that the mayor is happily married? Is it different still if the girlfriend is on the city's payroll? What if all them are on the payroll? What if the mayor's office provides no salary? The people of New York have been debating these questions about New York's Mayor Giuliani all through 2001.

Do the answers to these questions about the mayor's personal life affect how he performs his duties? They certainly affect the people involved. Does the mayor's wife deserve more hurt because her husband is a public person? If the people involved were important people in the company we work for, the triangle would definitely be office water-cooler discussion fodder. We might be upset if the girlfriend seemed to be rewarded or receive benefits that seemed to be unrelated to her professional contribution to the company. We might like and want to protect the errant company officer. However, these matters usually don't make the front page of the local newspaper.

Of course, if the activity moves across the line from the merely unwise to the criminal—if money disappears from corporate coffers and turns up in the pockets of the corporate officer—that's a different matter.

Likewise, our opinion changes if the mayor's girlfriend is on the payroll for other than her professional expertise. Most likely she is forced to leave her job, even if she is thought to have been doing a good job. The fact that her competence is now questioned makes it impossible for her to perform her job.

We generally believe that the reporting of the mayor's indiscretions is a good thing. His behavior does affect whether or not we trust him.

For our elected and appointed officials, we want to know about automobile accidents, drunk driving arrests, hospital treatments for depression or drug rehabilitation. We want to know who owns what—who might receive a benefit from a public purchase. We have learned that not all people who say they want to serve the public are actually serving the public.

So we have investigative reporting. We do want and deserve to know. And, largely because of the efforts of the press, we have laws requiring open access to much of our government-collected data. That data can be very interesting and can provide us with a better picture of areas we care about.

Remember: As You View our Surveillance Overview, the Surveillance Overviews You

IT'S YOUR PRIVACY, after all, and maybe you're more determined than the average soul in protecting it. If you don't cross an international border, don't go online, don't travel on commercial airlines? If you don't use credit cards, don't use a cell phone, don't use a phone at all. If you don't register to vote? If you don't go outside?

Nope, sorry. Your privacy's already compromised, and you didn't feel a thing.

As the privacy debate matures and expands, people who initially screamed for their absolute right to absolute privacy have by and large moderated that stance, seeking a comfortable middle ground between a mythical total anonymity (which hasn't existed since humans started inhabiting adjacent caves) and the Orwellian all-seeing, all-processing eye—we kick at banks selling our data to telemarketers but keep our phone numbers listed, for instance—and are happy in the main with the tradeoffs between privacy and convenience, privacy and security, or simply privacy and not worrying about privacy when there's a whole world of other stuff to fret about.

To invoke the spirit of Summer 2000 Past once more, we've come to the conclusion that even though we're not able to create for ourselves a retreat into Pulau Tiga-level isolation, we also aren't subject to Survivor-style ubiquitous monitoring either, unless we want to be. Fine, if the playing field is really so level as that. But it's not.

Whatever precautions you choose to take—even if you choose not to tangle with the Net and its privacy issues—there are some technological invasions that you just can't barricade yourself against. The following are technologies that do, or have the capacity to, significantly infringe on the privacy of even the most wary citizens. Lest we send our more nervous readers scurrying for their lead-lined headgear and Y2K-era survival bunkers, we reiterate: There's not a thing you can do about it. Add one more item to the list that includes death and taxes.

SOMEWHERE OVER OUR heads, hundreds of miles up, whirl the satellites. A great number of them act as sophisticated phone and cable antennas, moving human communications and broadcasts from Point A to Point B; a great number more float overhead in death, long since decommissioned but cheaper to leave in orbit than to recycle. There are the weather satellites, kicking butt and saving lives.

And there are the ones that can spot the box of cereal in your bag as you walk through the grocery-store parking lot.

News earlier this month that the general public can now get high-res satellite photos is pretty cool for those of us who like to see the lay of the land—real-estate agents, for instance, or folks tracking weather—or agriculture-related situations. But a wise rule of thumb states that if X technology is widely available, next-level versions of that technology are available to those with the money to buy them. The advent of "Keyhole"-class visible-light satellites with resolutions of 5 to 6 inches—a satellite that can count how many pieces of luggage you're taking to the airport, or how many people have gathered for your anti-WTO demonstration—has already been reported in the mainstream media. Tighter resolution takes us to facial-feature-recognition level—something done currently by on-the-ground surveillance equipment such as traffic cameras, used to great effect in apprehending British demonstrators recently. And combining multiple images is not beyond the reach of fast computers, as seen in Bosnia recently where UN officials showed stunningly detailed 3-D maps of the Serb-held countryside to demonstrate that negotiations were in Serbia's best interest. Those images were a blend of satellite images and recon photos. Other tools in the über-surveillance arsenal include infrared/ ultraviolet photography (is your home energy-efficient?) and radar-imaging technology (what have you got buried in your backyard?).

BACK ON EARTH, the great specter of ubiquitous surveillance has traveled in privacy circles under the name of ECHELON, the vast Anglophone transmission monitoring system that has received increased attention in the past year. Meanwhile, while the Europeans ponder ECHELON's implications and Americans inquire into the FBI's proposed Carnivore monitoring system, the British government has passed the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Bill, which provides nearly unprecedented powers to monitor Net transmissions and punish people who, say, forget a password the government would like to know. (Yes, I mean jail time—check it out at http://www.uk.internet.com/Article/100347.) And the Israelis are currently floating a proposal that would allow their GSS (General Security Service) to listen to e-mail, Net, and satellite links.

Meanwhile, if you're still worried about the satellite spying on your cereal purchasing patterns, be it known that you've got a lot less to worry about from the eye in the sky than from the eye in the ceiling. Supermarket monitoring of shoppers is nigh-ubiquitous—to cut down on shrinkage, sure, but primarily to figure out how to build a better mousetrap. When you picked up that box of Wheaties, did you pace past the whole cereal shelf? Did you compare prices? Did you have a problem finding the brand or the aisle? All of that's data for designers trying to improve store traffic flow and profits. And though you're not likely to miss the surveillance notices in places that want you to be aware of the cameras (in crime-prone shops, for instance), in your average grocery store they're not likely to risk unnerving the shoppers by mentioning the monitoring.

YOU'D HAVE TO BE an idiot not to expect it, just as you expect to pass through a mildly annoying security check at an airport on your way to the gate. Procedures vary widely—X-rays, handheld metal detectors, the occasional switching on of a notebook or PDA (and don't get me started on the Sea-Tac miss who demanded I take a sip of my latte in front of her to prove it wasn't...hell, I don't know what her deal was), the occasional swab test for explosives residue, but the common thread among all these procedures is that you're aware of them.

The good news for very impatient travelers is that such things could infringe on their IPO-addled consciousnesses somewhat less somewhat soon. The bad news, well...

Holographic body-searching (no, it's not some kinky Princess Leia-Star Wars thing) uses waves in about the 30GHz range to generate a 360-degree full-body image of what's under one's clothes. Leaving aside the health implications of that zap of radiation, one wonders where the inevitable security tapes of such scans would be stored—and how much the black market will offer for the archives when Natalie Portman (for instance) passes through the security checkpoint. (And if you think that's nasty, imagine the uproar over those images when kids pass through the scanners. Patrick Naughton, phone your office! )

Even weirder, you might one day be insta-searched not for what's on your person but for what's in it and where it's been. A Penn State chemist has been developing a metal-detector device that reads what he calls the human thermal plume—the little cloud of airborne particles that envelopes every human body. Where your cat registers body warmth and you notice that the person sitting next to you has been eating garlic, Gary Settles' chemical analyzer reads and analyzes, through a process called schlieren photography, the little bits of skin and chemicals and dust and fabric fibers and whatnot that float off us. If you've been handling gunpowder or smack, for instance, a quick scan might tip the authorities.

How long do you have to clean up your act? A Massachusetts company called Ion Track estimates its reader, which will take about 10 seconds to perform such a scan, is approximately a year from market. On the up side, a major audit of US airport security last year revealed that between airport operators and the FAA, airport security's a mess, so don't expect much soon. Positive uses for such technology might include less invasive tests for disorders such as diabetes; negative uses...well, say goodbye to the relatively occasional company drug piss-test.

WHAT GOOD DOES it do to worry about these things? Lobbying your Congressperson isn't likely to cut down on the number of telemarketers interrupting your supper; is there anything that can be done about large-scale, noninvasive surveillance capabilities? Because it's in your best interests to know. It must be. After all, many other folk have invested a lot of money to know about us; it's only polite to return the favor.

—Angela Gunn

Source: http://www.seattleweekly.com/features/0035/tech-gunn.shtml

Reprinted with permission.

Some Government Data Usable as News Sources

The following is a list we selected to show some of the information that can be obtained from federal government registration and compiled data. You can see that a good reason for collecting the information exists. You can also see that, if you were cheating or trying to hide your activities, some of this information could be embarrassing.

Much more information is available, of course. More information about these databases and others can be found on the Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. Web site at http://www.ire.org. And the Federal government is not the only source of information. States and counties have lots of information, much of it easily accessible via the Internet. For example, the County of El Dorado, California, has a Web site that makes searching for information about individuals and property fairly easy. See it at http://www.co.el-dorado.ca.us/countyclerk/. Others don't necessarily have all the information online, but make it easy to request that information from official records (see the following list):

  • Air Transportation (see the complete list of databases at http://www.faa.gov/safety2.htm)

    FAA Enforcements: A database of FAA enforcement actions against airlines, pilots, mechanics, and designees.

    FAA Service Difficulty Reports: A database of maintenance incidents collected by the FAA for the purpose of tracking repair problems with commercial, private, and military aircraft, and aircraft components.

  • Road Transportation

    DOT Fatal Accidents: A nation-wide database of fatal road-vehicle accidents. (http://www-fars.nhtsa.dot.gov/)

    NHTSA Vehicle Recalls and Complaints: A database of vehicle complaints, recalls, service bulletins, and inspections. (http://www.dot.gov/affairs/nhtsa99.htm)

  • Waterways

    Boat Registration: The database contains information on registered recreational and commercial boats.

  • Federal

    FEC Campaign Contributions: A database of all individual and political action group (PAC) contributions to federal election campaigns. (http://www.fec.gov/finance/finmenu.htm)

  • Health

    National Practitioner Databank: This database contains information about doctors and other health care practitioners who have had medical malpractice suits filed or adverse action taken against them. Although names are not included, some news organizations have been able to use this database with other public records to determine the identity of individual practitioners. (http://www.npdb.com/)

  • Business

    Home Mortgage Disclosure Act Data: A database of home mortgage loan requests, information about the requesters as well as the financial institutions. (http://www.ffiec.gov/hmda/)

When Data Collection Focuses on You

Public persons are private persons, too. Balancing the public's need to know with the individual's right to privacy is something that editors and publishers do every day.

And while the editorial staff at your local paper does the privacy balancing act with the articles, the advertising staff is doing a very different balancing act. They are responsible for making sure that the advertising is bringing in sufficient revenue so the paper stays afloat. They also ensure that the amount of advertising is appropriate for the editorial content and that they reach the audience that is most receptive to the advertising message. To do that, they have to know something about their readers.

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Last Update: November 17, 2020