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Technology

Electronic surveillance: Who is watching you?

Last Updated August 12, 2005

�The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it, moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live -- did live, from habit that became instinct -- in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.�

— From 1984, George Orwell


George Orwell published his futuristic book in 1949, depicting life in a totalitarian regime where both behaviour and thought are monitored and censored.

While few would argue that we are living the life Orwell envisioned, ours is a world where surveillance technology is cheaper, and more widespread and effective than ever before.

Certainly Enron executives discovered to their chagrin how easy it is for authorities to track e-mail correspondence. In 2003, the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission posted the company's e-mail on its website during an investigation into energy-market manipulation.

But even law-abiding citizens might want to pay closer attention to modern surveillance technologies.

In August 2005 for example, Canada�s Transport Minister Jean Lapierre announced a security review of our transportation system, including a proposal to increase the number of security cameras in public transit systems.

While Canada does not have nearly the same level of video surveillance in public places as does Britain or the United States, we should be aware of its implications, says Claudiu Popa, president of Informatica Security, a Toronto network security consultancy.

�I�m not as concerned about Eatons filming every corner of their store while I�m there as I am about the government following me around every moment of the day,� says Popa.

In Britain, where there are cameras not only in the transit system, but on residential streets, and in shopping malls and public squares, it�s possible for authorities to reconstruct much of a person�s day.

Certainly, video footage played a large role in the British police investigation into the July 2005 transit bombings. Authorities had argued that they would use such footage to capture criminals, and indeed that�s what happened.

In Canada, an August 2005 survey by the Strategic Counsel found that 72 per cent of Canadians polled support having video cameras in all public places.

But Alan Borovoy of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association says our support for that kind of surveillance should depend on how great the dangers are, and the alternatives for dealing with those dangers.

�The responsible thing for us democratic citizens � is to say to the government, �OK, you want to develop that particular measure. Can anything less intrusive do the job?��

Only if the answer is no should we allow it, says Borovoy.

The problem, say security experts, is that even if government is as good as its word and uses surveillance only for criminal investigations, there is always the potential for that information falling into the wrong hands.

�OK, you can take my photo walking down the street. But if someone hacks into your system and if they figure out I go home at 6 p.m. every day and I get attacked, then you�re liable,� says Popa.

And therein lies the difficulty with any form of electronic surveillance: �There are always hackers. And there will always be successful hackers who will hack into protected systems,� says Popa.

In 2004 and 2005, criminals breached a firewall at credit reporting agency Equifax Canada. They got access to personal financial information on hundreds of individuals – names, addresses, type of loans, credit cards and even social insurance numbers. That�s the kind of information necessary for identity theft.

Even something as seemingly innocuous as a cellphone service using global positioning technology to let parents track their children could have a dark side. The technology lets parents use an internet web browser to locate their child�s cellphone and, presumably, their child. But what if someone else got access to that tracking system, asks Popa?

In a 2003 report, the American Civil Liberties Union paints another distressing scenario: �An African-American man from the central city visits an affluent white suburb to attend a co-worker�s barbeque. Later that night, a crime takes place elsewhere in the neighborhood.

The police review surveillance camera images, use face recognition to identify the man, and pay him a visit at home the next day. His trip to the suburbs where he �didn�t belong� has earned him an interrogation from suspicious police.�

While some surveys suggest we are willing to give up a measure of privacy in exchange for surveillance aimed at countering terrorism, it doesn�t mean we�re complacent about it.

According to a 2005 study commissioned by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, 70 per cent of Canadians surveyed �expressed a high sense of erosion of their privacy and the protection of their personal information.� The same percentage said that it will become one of the most important issues facing the country.

The survey also suggested most of us have little confidence in technology�s ability to protect our privacy.

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