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'Surveillance is Freedom' 

One writer discovers that if you're not paranoid about privacy loss, you're not paying attention

A PARANOID ESSAY BY ASHLEY SCHWELLENBACH

Once the procedure was over, and the abnormally large needle was removed from her neck, the cat at the SLO County Animal Shelter--henceforth identified as 495F3C6119--resumed her standard catly behavior, apparently unconcerned that she had just been implanted with a chip that would verify her identity and location. And even if her feline brain could produce paranoid ramblings, why should she be afraid? It was, after all, done for her own well-being.

But then, neither does the man at the car dealership, swinging the keys to his brand new 2008 Chevrolet, seem to care that his purchase is equipped with a black box that will record his actions as a driver. How can a little box whose existence is practically unnoticed by the general population possibly do him harm? It can't--as long as he obeys traffic laws at all times.

And what of the unheeding American vacationer backpacking through Europe under the guise of being a Canadian while his passport is broadcasting signals that not only indicate his American citizenship, but also state his hometown, date of birth, and name? Well, the chips that emit those signals are actually being planted in all passports issued after the summer of 2007 for the purpose of speeding bureaucratic processes and ensuring the safety of the traveler and passport. It's like carrying a little piece of the Department of Homeland Security with you wherever you go.

click to enlarge 20080124070613_l.jpg

#

 

 

 

 

Just take your cue from the citizens of London, who live their lives amid a web of thousands of video surveillance cameras, secure in the knowledge that technological surveillance systems will prove their innocence far more effectively than they ever could.

Surveillance has reached ubiquitous proportions, so much so that it's tempting for a writer whose brain is capable of paranoid ramblings to tumble headlong into a vortex of suspicion and mistrust--particularly after a simple exercise to explore the ways in which the lives of everyday SLO residents are affected by these new technologies revealed violations of privacy at every turn. From the innocuous to the downright ominous, from microchipping your pet to tracking your kid, these devices have wormed their way into our everyday lives, and life as we know it can never be the same.

But perhaps panic isn't necessary. As this writer set out to delve into the depths of our own surveillance culture, she was assured at every turn: It's for our own good.

 

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# Tracking Fido

Pet owners have been microchipping their dogs and cats for the last 15 years, but the technology has really seen an explosion in use in the last three to five years. According to Eric Anderson, manager for the San Luis Obispo County Division of Animal Services, for the last three years all dogs and cats that pass through their shelter's doors have been scanned for a microchip. And in the next couple of months, Anderson anticipates that all shelter vehicles will be equipped with a scanner as well.

 

The technology seems helpful, maybe cute, but even this--probably the least ominous of the surveillance and tracking technologies--comes with problems.

Microchips use a technology called radio-frequency identification (RFID). The chip is passive, meaning that it doesn't actively emit a signal. Instead, a scanner sends a radio frequency signal, and the chip bounces back a response in a minute, complicated game of Marco Polo. The chips placed in animals must be read from a scanner mere inches from its location, eliminating the possibility of frantic pet owners scouring the county with scanners.

click to enlarge HERE KITTY, KITTY :  Any pet injected with a microchip can then be identified by a scanner held within inches of the animal's body. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • HERE KITTY, KITTY : Any pet injected with a microchip can then be identified by a scanner held within inches of the animal's body.

# Chips are injected into the skin between the animal's shoulder blades in much the same way a vaccine is administered, except that the needle is larger. According to Anderson, the chip doesn't affect the animal's system, but owners should nonetheless wait until a pet is four to six months old before implanting the chip, which lasts the animal's lifetime. Most veterinarians are equipped to microchip pets, as is Animal Services' shelter. New for this year, the shelter is offering walk-in microchipping on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, from noon to 5 p.m.

Each chip is registered with the company that produces it, and many can only be read by their own scanners, something Anderson said can be a problem. Another challenge is that there are different, competing technical standards.

As far as Anderson is concerned, the challenges don't come close to outweighing the value of having a lost pet return home.

 

"Do it now," Anderson advised. "It's going to be years before that's all ironed out, if ever. The need for having an animal identifiable is immediate."

Every week, he said, the Animal Shelter finds a handful of animals that don't have identification tags, and they manage to return them to their owners because they have microchips

It's for their own good.

 

click to enlarge 20080124070941_l.jpg
# Tracking Junior

It's a good time to be in the covert surveillance sales industry. If you don't believe me, just run a quick Internet search on GPS. Or ask Ron Howat, owner of Santa Barbara Surveillance Systems, a company that sells covert tracking equipment to customers in Ventura, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo counties.

He's not talking about the kind of GPS that helps your car tell you where to go. Howat deals in what's called GPS covert tracking. The good news, in Howat's words, is that the technology is developing rapidly and has "become more affordable and effective."

The even more terrific news is that now almost anybody can buy covert tracking devices. In the past, Howat's clients were almost exclusively investigators and policemen, people who were familiar with the technology and the legal restrictions that accompany their tools of the trade. But private citizens are beginning to represent an ever-increasing consumer market, and sales are going nowhere but up. As pleased as Howat is about the increased revenue, he acknowledges that selling to clients who are less educated about the technology's capabilities can be difficult.

On his website, Howat provides California's laws regarding tracking devices, the primary one being that "No person or entity in this state shall use an electronic tracking device to determine the location or movement of a person (Penal Code 637.7 (a))." It is legal to purchase equipment to track assets, like cars and boats. And a subsection of the penal code allows that it's also legal to use this technology to track children and teenagers--where they are, how fast they're driving--a use that's rapidly growing in popularity among concerned parents.

Whether placing a tracking device in a teenager's car is conditioning the youngster to passively accept surveillance is legally a matter for individual parents to decide, but Jay Stanley, public education director for the ACLU's Technology and Liberty Program, urges caution.

"Children don't have the full rights of adults, and they don't always know their best interests," Stanley said. "But we have to ask ourselves very serious questions when we start to utilize surveillance mechanisms on children, especially if you're doing it without their knowledge. But even when you do tell them, 'Look, I'm going to be recording your movements, or your vehicle, or your sneakers,' parents need to think very carefully about the kind of message that sends."

Whatever the law, not all businesses are eager to disabuse potential clients of the idea that they can stick a tracking device on whatever, or whoever, they want. The website of another company, GPS-on-Track, provocatively asks consumers, "Curious about where your spouse goes at night? Have teenagers you're concerned about? Think your employees might be abusing company car privileges?" The latter two options are technically legal, but overall, the concept introduces the Big Brother or Big Sister figure to the family unit.

Each company offers individual tracking packages with price tags that depend on the purpose of the technology. Howat estimates that a surveillance package to track a vehicle will generally cost between $300 and $700. It's not exactly a stroll through Wal-Mart, but it's certainly inexpensive enough for many parents in San Luis Obispo to begin thinking about their own family tracking plan.

 

Tracking travelers

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# In May of 2007, the U.S. State Department began issuing passports embedded with RFID chips. That's right, the same technology being used by animal shelters is now being used by Customs officials. As of last summer, all passports contain chips that duplicate the information written in the passport--name, date of birth, gender, passport number, photo image, etc.

As a member of the International Civil Aviation Organization, an agency of the United Nations, the United States participated in an effort to adopt standards for the use of machine-readable passports. An electronic reader scans these passports, and the passport holder's information appears on a computer screen.

When the government first announced plans to use RFID technology in passports, the decision was met with staunch opposition. According to Nicole Ozer, Technology and Civil Liberties Policy Director for the Northern California branch of the ACLU, a lot of this concern stemmed from the fact that the government apparently completely overlooked the fact that this technology could be used to steal information or even track and target Americans abroad.

"The government wanted to put RFID technology in passports with no protections at all," Ozer explained. "The government thought, 'Oh, this technology is great. We'll just use this on passports and we'll put your name and your address and that you're an American, all this information on a chip and then as you go through security we can just read that information from a distance.' Well, hello, if there's no security then other people can read that information without you knowing it."

And the ACLU wasn't the only organization that lobbied the government for passport protections--or to scrap the effort altogether. Government watchdog Bill Scannell was so outraged that he created a website called RFIDkills.com, which generated more than 1,500 comments from other concerned citizens.

Internet discussion boards evaluated the best method of

click to enlarge TRAVELS WITH UNCLE SAM :  An emblem beneath the words "United States of America" indicates that this passport, issued this past winter, contains RFID technology. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • TRAVELS WITH UNCLE SAM : An emblem beneath the words "United States of America" indicates that this passport, issued this past winter, contains RFID technology.
# destroying the chip without affecting the passport--but before looking for this information online, keep in mind that tampering with a U.S. passport could lead to prison time.

When asked whether destroying an RFID chip would carry the same weight as other forms of passport tampering, Steve Royster, spokesman for Consular Affairs at the Department of State said, "Why would someone want to do that, when this chip has the potential to speed travel? It provides an extra level of security. I would think that you would normally treat your travel documents with love and care."

Ultimately, the government did respond to demands for security, beginning with the fact that the data can be scanned from no farther away than three to four inches. Shielding materials placed in the cover are supposed to prevent the passport from being scanned unless it's open. Data is also encrypted and protected by a digital signature. How successful these strategies will be remains to be seen, but the government is confident that the decision to incorporate RFID chips in passports was a good one.

Said a confident Royster: "We've come up with a document that will protect the American public."

But wait, there's more.

In fact, the government was so happy with the technology, it has developed a new credit-card-sized passport card that contains the same technology and can be read from as far away as 20 feet. The new card won't be used in airports--it's intended for border crossings.

And the government plans to provide people who apply for the card with a protective sleeve to prevent the information from being scanned without the traveler's knowledge. This new card will likely go into production this spring and people can begin placing advance orders next month.

Maybe you should get one. It's for your own good.

 

Is your car spying on you?

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# Event data recorders, commonly known as black boxes, are among the most ominous of developments in technological surveillance, primarily because so few people seem to realize that they exist, much less that their car probably has one installed. You may be asking, "If I've been driving around with an event data recorder and haven't noticed, what difference does it make?" Well, the information gathered by event data recorders is often accessed following a car accident and can be presented as evidence against the driver who unwittingly harbored it. Since 2000, event data recorders have been admitted as evidence in dozens of court cases.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which is responsible for governing the use of event data recorders, has a policy that forbids employees from talking on the record about anything--including black boxes. They can only supply "background information." But, um, we can't tell you it came from them.

At the local level, acquiring information about black boxes doesn't seem to be any easier. Calls to local auto dealerships to enquire whether this technology was equipped in the vehicles they sold--and whether they were providing consumers with this information--were ignored or, in one notable case, met with confusion. A general manager at one local dealership insisted that he didn't know what event data recorders are, but was certain that the cars he sold weren't equipped with them. He was wrong.

Nearly all cars manufactured today apparently contain event data recorders, and many vehicles that were produced as far back as 1994 may also contain them. A list provided by Harris Technical Services, a company that reconstructs what happened in traffic accidents, lists Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Chrysler, Dodge, Ford, GMC, Hummer, Jeep, Lexus, Pontiac, and Toyota as among the 2007 brands that manufactured vehicles with event data recorders.

In fact, in 2004 the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that the government require auto manufacturers to include event data recorders in all vehicles, a measure that the board determined was unnecessary because the manufacturers were including the event data recorders of their own accord. The same year, California became the first state to require manufacturers to alert consumers to the fact that their vehicle was equipped with a black box. In 2006, the National Highway Safety Administration issued a similar rule, which won't apply until 2011 model cars. It also created an information acquisition standard for all event data recorders.

Originally, these little information-gathering boxes were created to ensure that airbags and other safety features functioned properly. Today's black box has a long list of data to record, including the speed the vehicle was traveling, whether the accelerator was pressed, whether the brake was pressed, the number of times the engine was started, and whether the driver was wearing a seat belt. All of this information is recorded in the five seconds or so preceding a crash.

According to additional background information, it is illegal under federal law for auto repair shops to remove an event data recorder from a vehicle because the device is linked to the airbag, and removing it could render the airbag inoperable. Individuals won't violate federal law by removing the black box themselves, but they could risk violating state law. And removing an event data recorder seems to be the only how-to that's missing from the Internet. For better or worse, your little black box may be spying on you for years to come.

But don't worry.

It's ensuring your safety on the road.

 

National IDs

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# In 2005, Congress passed the Real ID Act as an attachment to an Iraq and tsunami-relief appropriations bill. The government insists that the Real ID Act isn't intended to create a national ID, but the ACLU--and several dozen states--argue otherwise. Under the act, the Department of Homeland Security specifies national standards that state-issued driver's licenses must adhere to. Citizens without a driver's license that meets these requirements will be unable to open bank accounts, board airplanes, or enter federal buildings. Information on the cards must be duplicated in a digital format so a computer can read the card.

On Jan. 11, nearly three years after Congress approved the Act, the Department of Homeland Security has issued the standards for all state driver's licenses and stated that individual states have until May 11 to comply. That it's impossible for states to create and issue new driver's licenses to all citizens prior to May 11 is obvious, but the government also decreed that states that promise to comply would be given until December of 2017 to do so. Nearly 40 states have vowed not to comply, objecting to the amount of funding such an effort would require and expressing concern that the Real ID is essentially a national ID. California is not among the renegade states. The situation is essentially forcing a showdown with the federal government, though there may be a brief lull before the deadline in May. (For a list of states that refuse to comply with the Real ID Act, visit www.realnightmare.org.)

click to enlarge LIBERTY MEETS SECURITY :  Microchips containing RFID technology are slightly larger than a grain of rice, requiring large needles to inject them into an animal's skin. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • LIBERTY MEETS SECURITY : Microchips containing RFID technology are slightly larger than a grain of rice, requiring large needles to inject them into an animal's skin.

# ACLU to the rescue?

In recent years, the ALCU has issued a series of reports documenting the post 9/11 explosion of government-funded public video surveillance in California cities.

"What we've been seeing the last couple of years was that all of a sudden, cities had money for video cameras and they were putting them up without any kind of public process or evaluation about whether cameras were an effective solution and what the impact on privacy and free speech was," Ozer explained. "We realized that the Department of Homeland Security was sending significant funds that were being used for video surveillance."

She noted that grants have gone to large and small communities throughout the country, including in California.

 

The fact that technologies regarded as intrusive and unwelcome during the '90s have been quietly making their way across the Golden State since 9/11 is a clear indication that the government is milking the threat of terrorism for all it's worth. And that's what prompted the ACLU to respond.

Thus far, various studies conducted by research groups and agencies in the United States and the United Kingdom indicate that video surveillance is ineffective at deterring crime, particularly when compared to public safety measures like increased street lighting and foot patrols. If Californians are, in fact, relinquishing privacy for security measures that aren't working, where's the outrage? Stanley believes there would be more outrage if surveillance systems were less covert.

"If a case officer was assigned to you from the minute you walked out your front door and followed you around all day and wrote down everything you did, most citizens would be pretty freaked out," he explained. "They would complain to their city council. But that's the equivalent of what it is to have all your public spaces covered by video cameras."

In other words, the ACLU wants us to question these various forms of privacy intrusion--civil and otherwise--even if they are for our own good.

Imagine that, kitty 495F3C6119!

Questioning Big Brother might seem dangerous, but as Ben Franklin said, "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."


Arts Editor Ashley Schwellenbach can be tracked at aschwellenbach@newtimesslo.com.

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