Wednesday, January 4, 2006

Privacy? Where?


Pat Murphy

Never underrate the American genius for finding humor in fear.

A cellular phone company has launched a humorous TV campaign showing how the young office boy catapulted himself to hobnobbing with the CEO aboard the company jet by snapping embarrassing photos of executives on his cell phone camera and winning promotions through blackmail.

Reality, however, isn't funny. Salacious voyeurs with camera phones have turned to snapping lustful photos of women in public.

The camera phone is but one ubiquitous tool invading space and robbing people of privacy. TV cameras as small as lipstick tubes track shoppers in stores, while larger versions spy on pedestrians on streets of large cities.

Sony Music was caught distributing CDs with a buried code to track a buyer's Internet interests. Sony is now settling a class action lawsuit involving tens of thousands of outraged consumers.

Internet hackers have been around for a while stealing identities and fleecing millions of consumers. More resourceful hackers worm their way into corporate electronic files to steal consumer financial data. Other thousands of files have simply been lost through slipshod corporate security.

At least 55 million Americans probably lost $105 billion to hackers in 2004, with an even higher record in 2005, according to USA Today.

An industry has sprouted up around the hunger to spy: Devices for eavesdropping, bugging telephones and night vision binoculars for nighttime spying are sold at stores specializing in surveillance equipment.

As for those wordy "privacy policy" promises in phone and credit card bills and bank statements, beware of the small print: it carries a foreboding exception—records are open to "legal" orders.

But what's a "legal" order?

JetBlue airlines admitted turning over records of thousands of travelers simply on the request of federal agents without court approval. Americans' telephones and e-mail are known to have been tapped by the super secret National Security Agency on President Bush's orders, also without court approval.

Bush attorneys claim the U.S. Constitution grants almost unrestricted presidential powers in time of war.

With that reasoning, the president presumably could order agents to open mail, bug homes, rifle through personal papers and bank accounts, break into homes without search warrants and imprison citizens without charges in defiance of the Constitution's Fourth Amendment guarantee against "unreasonable search and seizure" on grounds he did it because of "the war."

Don't count on the remotest forest of guaranteeing privacy from prying eyes: the government's space satellites can locate virtually anything day or night.

Is Big Brother finally a reality?

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