Every move you make

It's getting harder to cover your tracks as even the most everyday activities -- from running a Google search to using the E-Z Pass lane -- leave a lengthy digital trail.

February 06, 2006|By JOE BURRIS | JOE BURRIS,SUN REPORTER

Ever get the feeling that someone's eyeballing you? You're probably right.

These days, between the news that the National Security Agency has been eavesdropping without warrants and that the Justice Department wants to know what searches have been conducted on Google and elsewhere, it's no wonder you feel under watch.

The real surprise, though, may be how so much of what you do on an everyday basis already gets screened, monitored, tracked, scanned and observed - often without your ever knowing it.

From spyware on your computer to police cameras on your street to GPS devices on your cell phone, how much of your private life is really private any more?

"It's all part of the general evaporation of privacy," said Peter Wayner, a Baltimore-based computer programmer who has written several books about online protocol and safety.

The Justice Department has obtained records of millions of anonymous, random searches made on Microsoft, Yahoo and America Online as it attempts to revive a child pornography law struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court. But Google, the world's most popular search engine, refused to comply, and the Justice Department has gone to court to force the company to turn over the data.

"I think the Justice Department isn't looking for personal information. They seem to want to do some research," Wayner said. "But the future may be different."

The issue has sparked privacy debates around the country - and opened the eyes of those who didn't know such records were being kept in the first place. In fact, most people leave a digital trail of personal information behind as they go about their daily life, using an ATM or a grocery savings club card or logging on to their e-mail accounts.

While most of this personal information cannot be released without a subpoena, you might be surprised at how easy it is to track where you've been and what you've done on a typical day. Consider this scenario:

Wake up, shower and dress, then before you go to work, log onto the Internet to check e-mails or a Web site.

No matter how you log onto the Web, all of your Internet activity can be traced because of your computer's Internet Protocol (IP) address, a random number that enables computers on a network to communicate.

"The IP address is like the phone number of a computer," said Wayner. "The companies usually keep the user's physical address bound to each IP address."

IP address information travels along the network of your Internet Service Provider (ISP), which acts as a conduit between your computer and the Web. Information stored by ISPs can be kept indefinitely.

"If you use a search engine for information about a bomb, your local computer has a record [of your search]," said Tim Finin, a computer science professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "Your ISP knows you're the guy who is at the address of that computer," he added, "and that you accessed the file."

Head for work, taking Interstate 95 and going through an E-Z Pass toll lane.

E-Z Pass knows you were there: Its transactions are like credit card purchases. The transponder that was placed on your windshield is read by a sensor as you pass through. Then the sensor calls up your account then verifies that it's in good standing.

"If for some reason it's not read correctly," said Teri Moss, spokeswoman for the Maryland Transportation Authority, "or if you go through an E-Z Pass lane [without a pass], a video image is taken of your license plate."

E-Z Pass would then contact the MTA, which would send you a letter requesting payment.

Just prior to approaching your office, your cell phone rings.

Some cell phones have Global Positioning System chips, enabling you to be tracked if, for example, you call 911 during an emergency.

Yet GPS devices can also alert your mobile carrier of your whereabouts throughout the day.

"If you have your phone turned on, your location is known to the phone company," said Finin. "Your cell phone is constantly communicating with the closest cell tower. Even when you're not using it, it's constantly pinging the nearest tower to say, `I'm here. This is my number.'"

Arrive at work, swipe an access card to open the locked employees' entrance. Head to your cubicle.

Were your movements tracked from the moment you entered the building? Yes and no.

Andre Mendes, software engineer at Entry Master Systems, a Baltimore-based commercial security and access control company, said most access cards contain a coded, arbitrarily assigned number, but no personal information. Your employer, though, can match the random numbers to specific employees.

But are there surveillance cameras, perhaps inside the dark glass half bubbles you see on some ceilings, once you're inside? Department stores, government buildings, libraries and hospitals are some of the facilities that use such devices.

Officials at Diebold, an Ohio-based systems company, say some images can be stored for three months, and top-of-the-line cameras can zoom in on the minutest objects.

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