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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 outrageous allegations of HP
prying into private phone records, tailing board members and sending
computer spyware to reporters are more 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 spycraft, by 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 thumbing through the supermarket tabloids tsk-tsk at
the invasive tactics of paparazzi.
"The public has a double standard," said technology futurist Paul
Saffo, adding that it's difficult for people to get riled up when
someone else's privacy is under attack.
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."
The lengths to which HP went may have crossed ethical and legal
lines - California Attorney General 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
Women and men will 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
percent 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
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 would willingly
do a background check if he felt something was amiss about his
daughter's boyfriend. He even went dumpster diving to investigate
the dealings of a corporation in which he had invested.
"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 drove, 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,"
The 2001 attacks and ensuing war on terrorists opened the door to
heightened surveillance by law enforcement and intelligence
agencies. They increased taping of Americans' phone calls and voice
mails and clandestinely accessed bank and credit card transactions.
Authorities are even using supercomputers to crunch enormous amounts
of personal data to predict who might become a terrorist.
Companies are heavily involved in checking up, often starting with
background checks on prospective workers. And people make it easier
than ever, by posting personal information to social networking Web
sites such as MySpace or pictures to sites such as Flickr.
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