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In a High-Tech World, I Spy, You Spy, We Spy

HP is not the only one snooping on others, but people are offended only when it happens to them, experts say. Google anyone lately?

September 23, 2006|Dawn C. Chmielewski and Alana Semuels | Times Staff Writers

The corporate spying scandal at Hewlett-Packard Co. has piqued the ire of prosecutors and politicians, but not of Mark Pawlick.

The New Hampshire dad figures the allegations of HP prying into private phone records, tailing board members and sending computer spyware to reporters are just examples of how America has become a society of snoops.

"There's probably more surveillance than anyone is aware of. It's just a fact of life," said Pawlick, who himself has resorted to a little spy craft, installing a tracking device on the car of his teenage stepdaughter. "These things don't surprise us anymore."

At a time when your bank tracks how and where you spend every dime, the federal government might be listening to your phone calls and your boss almost surely knows how many minutes you spend on EBay, the notion of personal privacy is changing fast.

HP's scandal highlights how conflicted those notions can be, in the same way people tsk-tsk at the invasive tactics of paparazzi as they thumb through the supermarket tabloids.

"The public has a double standard," technology futurist Paul Saffo said, noting that it's difficult for people to get riled up when someone else's privacy is under attack, particularly if it makes for interesting reading.

At the same time, though, "we take it for granted we're being watched," Saffo said. "We all know we're being watched, but we assume no one who's watching us cares."

To be sure, there's a vast legal and ethical chasm between a parent electronically monitoring a child's behavior and a giant corporation such as HP hiring detectives to follow people around or pose as someone to gain access to their private phone records. That latter practice is known as "pretexting."

The lengths to which HP went may have crossed ethical and legal lines -- California Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer is weighing criminal indictments and the FBI is investigating -- but spying has become part of modern life. And it's not just the big guys playing James Bond.

Women Google prospective dates. Neighbors check what the house next door sold for on Zillow.com. People use online satellite imagery to sneak a peek into the backyards of the rich and famous. Hidden nanny cams record baby sitters. More than 75% of employers monitor what their workers do on the job -- and more than a third record every computer keystroke.

"You really have, in a good and bad sense, a democratization of surveillance technology," said Lee Tien, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit technology advocacy group.

For $155, for instance, nervous new parents can buy a wireless camera small enough to hide in a smoke detector to keep tabs on the nanny. It even has night vision. For $60, DisneyMobile sells a kid's cellular phone with satellite tracking technology developed for the military.

Beth Givens of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse in San Diego knows one man who is such a privacy "zealot" that he considers any piece of junk mail a violation of personal space.

But he volunteered that he would willingly do a background check if he felt something was amiss about his daughter's boyfriend. Indeed, he even went dumpster diving to investigate the dealings of a corporation he had invested in.

"People are conflicted, but they are in all aspects of life," Givens said. "They have one set of standards for themselves and another for others, including large corporations."

Pawlick, for instance, used global positioning technology to monitor where his stepdaughter went -- and how fast. The tracker e-mailed him when she exceeded the speed limit or drove to parts of town he had designated as off-limits.

"I was out there basically doing this to protect her from herself," Pawlick said.

That sentiment writ large has fueled a significant increase in the amount of personal data collected by the federal government in recent years -- and a certain resignation by the public. A Gallup poll found in May that 4 in 10 people supported the National Security Agency's collection of phone records of average Americans.

"In a post-9/11 world, the whole attitude toward privacy and surveillance has had a tendency to trip in favor of surveillance," the EFF's Tien said.

The 2001 attacks and ensuing war on terrorists opened the door to heightened surveillance by law enforcement and intelligence agencies as well. They increased taping of Americans' phone calls and voicemails and clandestinely accessed bank and credit card transactions. Authorities are even using supercomputers to crunch enormous amounts of personal data and attempt to predict who might become a terrorist.

Companies do the same, often starting with background checks on prospective workers. And people make it easier than ever, by posting personal information to social networking websites such as MySpace or pictures to sites such as Flickr.

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