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?
By Dawn C. Chmielewski and Alana Semuels
Times Staff Writers
September 23, 2006
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.
An electronic monitoring and surveillance survey conducted by the American Management Assn. found that 76% of companies watch employees' Web surfing and half store and review e-mail messages and computer files. More than half the 526 companies participating said they tracked the phone numbers employees called and how much time they spent on the phone, and an equal number used video surveillance to counter theft, violence and sabotage.
The National Workrights Institute in Princeton, N.J., said electronic monitoring practices were even more pervasive -- occurring in 92% of all workplaces.
"It is today considered to be regular business practice to be monitoring employees," said Jeremy Gruber, the advocacy group's legal director. "And oftentimes, that monitoring is of middle level and rank-and-file employees. And it is almost always with the direct order or acquiescence of the executives of the corporation."
Fair enough, said Chicago law student Emily Ho, but "I think it's all a balancing act. You have to weigh security concerns with that of civil liberties."
Besides, Ho said, she routinely uses online search tools to look up people she meets — including a man who asked her out on a date. She canceled after typing his name into Google and discovering that he had been kicked out of college after allegations of date rape.
"If you look at where we've come in the last few years, especially since 9/11 and all the fear that's been trotted out to the American public, they're being softened for more and more invasive tech," said Liz McIntyre, coauthor of the forthcoming book "SPYCHIPS: How Major Corporations and Government Plan To Track Your Every Move." "If we don't stop and think about what we're doing right now, we're in serious trouble. It's already bordering on 1984."
Except, unlike in George Orwell's dark vision of the future, Winston Smith has just as much power to spy as Big Brother. And gadgetry is only part of the arsenal. As more records move online, public documents that used to be a hassle to search become a mouse click away.
"In many cases, information that's being made public is information that's always been public. Information about home sales, deeds or legal actions. But you had to go down to the courthouse. Precious few people are going to do that," said Amanda Lenhart, a senior researcher at the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
"But when information's available in a new way, in which it is searchable, it's very quick and easy to access, you don't have to leave your desk to check how much your neighbor's home sold for. When it's that easy to do, I think more people are going to do it."
Sometimes, Ruth Houston thinks spying is not only appropriate but also necessary. The 50-year-old author caught her husband cheating on her when she inadvertently recorded his phone calls and found him having suggestive conversations with three other women.
She became an infidelity expert, founding an advice website and writing a book called "Is He Cheating on You? — 829 Telltale Signs."
"In this day and age, you can't afford to be the last one to know," she said. "Snooping or spying might be the only way to find out."
It's hard to quantify how many times people spy on a neighbor or family member. One Pew survey by the found that more than half of parents said they had installed filtering or monitoring software on a computer to prevent a child from accessing certain websites or electronically retrace their footsteps online.
One Silicon Valley executive who recently came to Saffo's house for dinner matter-of-factly said he read all of his children's e-mails.
"He said, 'That's the price of your freedom. I get to look at everything,' " said Saffo, recounting the exchange. "In that sense, privacy has ceased to be a right. It's a commodity. You buy it through your actions, like avoiding doing certain things or paying extra to have your phone unlisted."