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Big Brother's Coming To Visit

(first of a 2-part series on privacy issues originally published
in the fall and winter 1998 issues of The Northern Spy)

by Michael Arnowitt

     Linda Tripp's casual taping of Monica Lewinsky, using an ordinary Radio Shack recorder, has brought privacy issues back into the limelight. While Clinton has claimed "even Presidents have private lives," the privacy of citizens everywhere has been greatly diminished by advancing technology and new, aggressive business and government practices.

     Big Brother is coming to visit your streets and neighborhoods, your house, your telephone, your workplace, your health records, and every aspect of your personal life.

     This first of a multi-part series will take a look at recent trends in how individuals are identified and monitored, important steps in the creation of an electronic file on a person by the State or the corporate world. Future issues of The Northern Spy will explore a variety of other privacy issues, including the gathering and selling of information on people's personal lives and the confidentiality (or lack thereof) of medical records.

     The identification of private citizens begins from birth, as the recent "switched babies" story illustrated. Hospitals usually attach ID bracelets to a newborn's wrists and ankles, and take footprints. Later in life, photographs, fingerprints and even genetic sequences (now part of army physicals) can provide much more definitive identification.

     New Federal rules, to go into effect by October 1, 2000, mandate states to change their driver's license and other IDs to a national standard including a Social Security number and a digital photo. States can only elect not to have the SS# on their ID cards if they collect the numbers separately and store them in an electronic database.

     Part of the standards for the new driver's licenses include a mandatory computer chip that would contain biometric information. It is projected that this "smart card" would eventually hold a person's retina scans, DNA samples, and fingerprints.

     Many observers have predicted that the net effect of these new regulations will be to create a national ID card. Citizens could be forced to show this ID when boarding transportation, seeking employment, government services, or medical care, and in many other areas of society where ID is not currently checked.

     Critics of the plan, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, are concerned the new ID card would create a national database of every person in the U.S., with identifying information that could be continually updated and electronically transmitted.

     Privacy advocates have also pointed to new opportunities for police abuses. The gathering and digitization of information would allow the police to call up photos of all people in specified zip codes with certain physical characteristics. This internet-transmittable information lends itself to possibilities for both personal and institutional abuses by those with access in government agencies.

     In its most Orwellian version, the national ID card's personal information would be injected into one's skin, an identifying procedure that has been experimentally used on military personnel and at the Olympics. This could be the ultimate violation of privacy: the State and the individual forced to be physically interconnected.

What's Your Number?

     As the U.S. does not currently have a national ID system, businesses and government agencies trying to create databases on private citizens have in recent years increasingly turned to the Social Security number as their identifier of choice.

     Keith Ammann, associate editor at the Metroland newsweekly in Albany, New York, has reported that although Social Security numbers were created with rules indicating the numbers were not to be used for general identification purposes, "that rule has been largely ignored in recent decades."

     The SSN is now used by banks, credit bureaus, insurance companies and health care providers. Many businesses routinely request customers' Social Security numbers, and in a Virginia case, a man was required to give his SSN in order to register to vote, a practice that was ruled unconsitutional.

     The significance of the Social Security number is that it is the index number that serves as the key to unlocking your electronic dossier. Companies or individuals willing to pay the price can, once they know your SS#, obtain a surprising amount of information regarding your personal, medical, and financial life history.

     Mitch Pearl, a Brandon attorney, has noted that some police departments in Vermont are improperly asking Social Security numbers of arrestees. He also has seen accident reports from the Department of Motor Vehicles with Social Security numbers blacked out, although the black-out job is done so imperfectly the number can still generally be read.

     Pearl was also the attorney in a case in Vermont where a family who had chosen not to get Social Security numbers for their children for religious reasons were denied food stamps. The benefits were restored through the religious freedom protections accorded by the First Amendment; however, the incident indicates to what lengths State agencies will go to put pressure on citizens to reveal their SS numbers.

     How easy is it to find out someone's SS number? In some states, it is possible to obtain driver's license records which may have the SSNs. Pearl mentions another source: property transfer tax returns in Vermont have Social Security numbers on them, and town clerks' records are public.

They Spy

     One of the areas of a person's life that has perhaps seen the greatest decrease in privacy in recent years is the workplace. People who are looking for work are particularly vulnerable, and large firms frequently pressure job-seekers to agree to allow privacy invasions.

     All Waldenbooks employees and potential employees are now required to sign a form granting permission to the Pinkerton company to access information bearing not only on the individual's credit history, but also "character, general reputation, personal characteristics, or mode of living," to quote from the release form used at a Vermont store. The means to obtain this information may include "personal interviews with neighbors, friends or associates."

     This type of snooping would be expected of someone applying to work at the CIA. It is a sign of the decreasing privacy of modern times that trying to obtain or maintain an ordinary low-paying job at a bookstore may necessitate giving permission to detectives to investigate the personal lives of the individual and their friends.

     Many companies, rather than hire Pinkerton, do their own spying of employees. A 1993 business survey estimated that 22 percent of employers practiced electronic surveillance on their employees, mostly without the knowledge or consent of the workers involved. The researchers' figure of 20 million employees affected nationally may well be out of date due to the increased use of new technologies in the field of employee spying such as "active badges," clip-on microcomputers enabling an employer to track a worker's movement electronically.

     Here in Vermont, good old-fashioned cameras are more likely to be the 'scope of choice. The state chapter of the ACLU received a report of video surveillance in a workplace's bathrooms; after a complaint was lodged, making the argument that videotaping women's rooms could not be considered an acceptable security practice, the company did remove the cameras.

     Dunkin Donuts' national plan to install video cameras that would monitor both employees and patrons was scrapped after media exposure. Locally, however, the Burger King in Barre does have an electronic surveillance set-up in their drive-up lane. Employees upon checking in for work are given a number which is then linked to an electronic system. If records indicate several cases of customers in the drive-up waiting for their French fries too many seconds over the limit, the worker ends up in trouble.

     Mitch Pearl notes the law on employee privacy is "not very favorable." There is no major law preventing corporations from spying on their employees. According to Pearl, the best way to prevent privacy abuses on the job is through unions and collective bargaining. Since there are no general legal safeguards, a worker to be protected needs to have these issues addressed in a contract.

     Big Brother is also spending time on the streets. In 1990, it was revealed that the Montpelier police were using the City Hall tower as a vantage point for surveillance of the sidewalk across Main Street; the common wisdom had it that they were particularly viewing traffic outside of Charlie-O's.

     Anthony Otis of Montpelier humorously set up across from City Hall two telescopes and a set of binoculars, to, as the Si Kahn song goes, "watch the man who's watching me." Montpelier police discontinued the practice after the tower surveillance activities received press coverage and negative community reaction.

     Locals who think they can walk the streets of Montpelier without being viewed by a camera may be in for a new surprise. Level Nine has designed an internet site for the City of Montpelier which involves a "web-cam" positioned at the corner of State and Main Streets which will view passersby. An updated photograph from the webcam will be transmitted and posted to the World Wide Web every five minutes. Valerie Capels, Montpelier's planning director, said no complaints to date have been received by the city regarding the webcam.

     Video is not the only sort of taping privacy-minded Vermonters might worry about. Like most states, Vermont's law on the audiotaping of conversations is the federal default standard of "one-party consent." This means that any direct party to a conversation is allowed to tape that conversation, whether it be in person or over the telephone. No notification or consent from the other party is required.

     Since the revelations of Watergate, it is almost to be expected that those inside the Beltway have their secret taping schemes. It has been reported that Ken Starr's office secretly outfitted Linda Tripp with a wire while she walked Monica Lewinsky through a scripted conversation, and that Starr was planning to do his own taping of Lewinsky and even tried to get Lewinsky to wire herself and record Vernon Jordan and possibly even the President. But could such surreptitious taping in situations where privacy is expected happen in Vermont?

     The recent Costin case, decided in late July by the Vermont Supreme Court, suggests the answer to that question may well be "yes." In a 3-2 decision, the judges ruled that it was not illegal for a trooper to, without a warrant, install a round-the-clock video camera with a trip wire on private property of a Ferrisburgh man suspected of growing marijuana plants.

     The basic reasoning outlined in the ruling authored by Justice John Dooley was that citizens have lessened privacy rights outside of the immediate area of their home, and that by not posting or fencing his land, the defendant had "no reasonable expectation of privacy" and the police were therefore "free to go onto his property and observe his activity."

     Joshua Diamond, a Montpelier attorney, commented that the ruling "shocks the conscience. A warrant should have been required." The decision is "a significant diminishing of constitutional protections."

     In a dissenting opinion, Justice Denise Johnson wrote, "Privacy is necessary not only to preserve freedom in a democratic society, but also to enhance our mental, physical, and spiritual well-being. Privacy plays an important role in developing our ability to be creative and spontaneous and to form trusting bonds with others. Knowing that our private activities might be under surveillance destroys our sense of security, freedom, and trust ... that is the hallmark of a free and open society."

     As individuals, we are increasingly being treated as pieces of equipment. We are issued a number, our preferences monitored, the details of our life digitized, transmitted, and sold as the final capitalist object in the Information Age. As Big Brother is being a frequent and unwanted houseguest, we might as well do some visiting of our own. In the next issue of The Northern Spy, our series on privacy issues will continue with a trip to the information marketplace, taking a look at some of the companies that buy and sell information about our personal lives.

[Click here to read Part 2 of the series.]

Your thoughts on the above are most welcome. E-mail me your comments and I'll post excerpts from the most interesting replies right here. Please include, if you are willing, your name, town, and country. (However, to safeguard your privacy, I will not post your e-mail address.)

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