Wayne Adult Community Center

Feature article from the October, 2006 Newsletter

Goodbye to the Last Vestiges of Privacy

In George Orwell's classic novel "1984", he described a nation in which everyone lived under constant surveillance. It seems that we are approaching that state of affairs:

You probably know about the recent rash of invasions of our privacy, many of which circumvent or simply ignore constitutional protections such as the prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure. In 2004, the General Accountability Office ("GAO") revealed the astonishing fact that there are 128 departments in our government that buy databases containing information about us, and there were at that time 34 "data mining" operations in progress1.

More recently, it was revealed that some of our government's many secret police agencies regularly conduct warrantless wire taps, clandestine searches of homes and businesses, mass scanning of e-mail2, collection of records of all phone calls made through Verizon and other companies3,4,5, and reviews of library records. And library staff are prohibited from informing people that their records have been reviewed.

Those are just the things that have been publicized as of this writing. We don’t yet know what other extra-legal activities are being carried on. (We may never know.)

As chilling as the above revelations are, our government is not the only one collecting information about us: Private industry has been compiling detailed profiles for many years, and the trend continues . The most recent revealed development is the placement of trackable electronic chips in products (more about that later in this article):


        If you visit sites on the World Wide Web (the portion of the internet that almost all of us use) your activities are often monitored without your consent or knowledge. There may be a record of where you go and what you do there (what you look at, what you download, what products you order).

        If you fill out and submit a "Warranty Registration" card when you buy a new product, and if you fill it out completely, you are giving the company, in many cases, information such as your family income, your interests, even what publications you subscribe to and what organizations you belong to. You should be aware that submission of a "warranty card" cannot legally be made a requirement for validating the warranty.

        Your credit card records provide copious information on what you buy, as well as where and when you buy it.

        If you use the Ez-Pass toll system, there is a record of where and when you cross each toll point.

        If your car is equipped with the Onstar system, it can be located accurately at any time.

        Surveillance cameras are now present not only in almost all banks and in many stores, but now on many public streets.

        Your cell phone can be located even after your conversation has ended, by "triangulation" of signals from several cell towers.

        If you use one of those "preferred customer" cards in supermarkets, their use gives the store a record of every purchase you made there, whether or not it is on the list of discounted items. Some stores even have shopping carts now that track your route through the store. Their record shows where you stopped, and how much time you spent at each stop.

        You are required to allow your health insurance company access to all your medical records, which could include even your DNA pattern.

                Most recently, some manufacturers have begun implanting electronic chips in their products. The chips can be read remotely. At present, the chip reader has to be within a short range of the chip (at most a few tens of feet), but the range will undoubtedly be extended significantly, and the use of these chips is on the increase.


Government and industry both claim that they safeguard the information they collect, but the claim is patently absurd:


Reports of data theft from both commercial companies and government agencies, are rampant.


Much of the information collected by commercial companies is sold and/or traded, almost always without our consent or knowledge.


Even some government agencies (such as several states' Motor Vehicle bureaus) have sold information to private companies6.


 But if you're "not doing anything wrong", why should you worry? There are at least two strong reasons:


1) Through data mining, it is possible to compile an amazingly detailed profile of you. The holder of such a profile has a potent weapon not only for annoying but relatively benign "targeted advertising", but also for decisions on whether to accept you for health insurance or employment, and in other critical matters.

2) You could become the target of suspicion and maltreatment by the government, through no fault of your own, if for instance, someone that you call has themselves called someone else that you don't even know, and the latter person is suspected of nefarious activity. Such guilt by association has been visited on people in the past, and is much more likely as surveillance of private citizens grows.


What can you do?


Ø   You can vote for people who are on record as opposing the increasingly invasive data collection and surveillance by industry and government.


ØYou can be vigilant regarding impending legislation that would further erode your right of privacy, and you can write to your state and national representatives to express your objections to our ever more intrusive living conditions.


ØYou can support organizations that are active in combating the accelerating trend toward a Big Brother society.


 Alternatively, you can resign yourself to life under constant, comprehensive surveillance by government and industry.


W. A. Shapiro




1. Data mining is the culling of data about an individual from several sources in order to create a more extensive profile. The report was given in testimony before a subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee.

2. Source: C|net News reporting a lawsuit by the Electronic Frontier Foundation against AT&T and the NSA.

3. Actually, although that is apparently their goal, it has been reported as of this writing that one or more phone companies have successfully resisted the possibly illegal demands for their records.

4. Source: New York Times, Friday, December 16, 2005.

5, The government and the telephone companies claim, with a straight face, that because the records were purchased by the government from a private business, our privacy laws do not apply.

6. In fact the line between government and private industry, which has often been somewhat blurry, is becoming ever more indistinct. For instance as noted in an earlier footnote our government, in its defense of compiling a massive database of calls made by US citizens not suspected of any crime, said that because it has bought the information from a private company, the matter is simply a business transaction and therefore is not subject to constitutional controls.