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Personal surveillance in U.S. everywhere

Dawn C. Chmielewski and Alana Semuels / LA Times | September 24 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 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 James Bond.

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 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 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," Pawlick said.

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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