First, Meet Mark, a graphic designer in Chicago. Like most of us, Mark knows his boss can read his e-mail, insurers can access his medical data. but he's blind to the bigger truth: personal data is collected, and sometimes shared, at a fantastic rate.
7:20 am: ATM
Mark withdraws $100 at his bank's ATM machine.
Who's watching: An ATM is a data terminal that's connected to a central computer, or hub, at a bank networking company such as NYCE Network or MAC. The ATM sends Mark's request to the hub; it, in turn, contacts Mark's bank. Once the bank's computers approve the transaction, the hub gives the ATM machine the go-ahead to spit out the bills. Though the three computer networks involved may be hundreds or more miles apart, the transaction takes just 2.5 seconds.
The NYCE Network alone logs 68.4 million transactions per month; each is stored on tape for seven years, as required by law. ATMs have become a vital, if secretive, way for authorities to track people who are either on the run or just raising suspicions. In May of this year, for example, an 18-year-old Miami girl was kidnapped and murdered on a Saturday night. By working with her bank to track transactions on her ATM card, the police were able to follow her abductors as they traveled from one location to another. The men were arrested Monday morning, soon after making yet another ATM withdrawal.
Financial information isn't the only data an ATM stores. It also holds photos of every customer-as we were vividly reminded by the haunting pictures of September 11 hijackers Mohamed Atta and Abdulaziz Alomari, taken at two Portland, Maine, ATMs the night before the attacks.
7:49 am: Surveillance
Mark enters his office building and takes the elevator to 5.
Who's watching: Virtually every large U.S. company employs video surveillance-mounting cameras on buildings (to monitor people's movements from as far away as one city block), on elevator ceilings, and in some cases even focusing them on workers' offices. There are at least 2,400 outdoor surveillance cameras in Manhattan alone, many of them installed by corporations, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union. Municipal governments have also embraced the technology: More than a dozen cities, including Memphis, Tennessee, and Hollywood, California, have placed video cameras on street corners, hoping to catch criminal activities such as drug deals or robberies.
Most companies say they keep videotapes for 30 days, and the Washington, D.C., police department-which hopes to expand its surveillance capabilities from 12 cameras to 1,000-has tried to placate privacy advocates by saying it might destroy footage after 72 hours. But no laws limit how the cameras must be used or the tapes archived. Researchers at the University of Hull in England have found that when a human operator is controlling surveillance cameras-whether at a police station or behind a security desk-they are often used improperly: to spy on women, monitor political protesters, or for racial profiling. And the tapes can get into the wrong hands. A British video called "Caught in the Act," available on the Internet, consists of a compilation of sex acts and illegal activities captured by surveillance cameras; the "filmmaker" created it from tapes he'd purchased from private companies and police departments.
Some surveillance technology goes well beyond mere videotape. Several airports across the country, including Logan Airport in Boston and Oakland International Airport in California, are testing software that scans people's faces as they pass through checkpoints and compares those digital photos to a database of mug shots that includes suspected criminals and people on watch lists supplied by the CIA, FBI, and other agencies. Visionics' FaceIt system can scan as many as 15 faces a second. For now, though, the technology is far from foolproof: Sunglasses, smiles, and hats can confuse it.