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No Place to Hide: Behind the Scenes of Our Emerging Surveillance Society

Author: Robert O'Harrow, Jr.
Publisher: New York: Free Press, 2005
Review Published: June 2005

 REVIEW 1: Lisa Smith

Robert O'Harrow's No Place to Hide: Behind the Scenes of Our Emerging Surveillance Society is probably one of the most accessible introductions to what some call the "surveillance-industrial complex." It is great reading for anyone wanting to get a clearer picture of the growing public/private venture that is creating a surveillance society even Orwell's Big Brother would envy. And given the recent fiascos at ChoicePoint and LexisNexis, two of the biggest players in the surveillance/information gathering game, where over 400,000 records where lost to hackers and thieves, the book may be required reading for a nation trying to understand just what is happening to its privacy.

O'Harrow, currently a reporter at the Washington Post and recently nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for his journalistic coverage of technology and individual privacy, presents the reader with a string of vignettes that starts with a trade show that could be out of a science fiction thriller, but it is in reality the International Association of Chiefs of Police technology conference in October 2003. Housed in the Pennsylvania Convention Center stretching over two blocks, it is filled with gung ho sales folk ready to sell any and all comers their data solution or personal identification technology. It may not start your car in the morning, but it will tell you where that car is and where it's been. Cell phones equipped with Global Positions Software (GPS) just like the one many cars use to help find the quickest route home can also be used to pinpoint your location. Finger prints and iris scanners and other facial recognition technology abounds. O'Harrow effortlessly moves us from the giddy sales floor to the questions the book will explore. The primary question being, how is it that we became a society of data gatherers and what does that mean in a post 9/11 world?

At first, it was a customer relationship management tool. By using information on buying habits marketers could better serve customers. Amazon.com is a prime example: "Your recommendations" and "People who bought this title also bought" options bring incredible convenience to book buying. These innovations were made possible by the technological advances of the 90s, especially the advent of the Internet and bigger, faster computers. O'Harrow then describes how this type of technology continued to develop:
    That was only the beginning. New devices emerged that enabled mobile phone companies to say precisely where you stood on the planet. Grocery stores and banks began using electronic fingerprint readers to authenticate who you were -- or give you the discounts you wanted. Tiny radio frequency identification devices, some as small as fleas, could be embedded in product packages, clothing, or even money, enabling another sort of tracking that was impossible before. Computer processors monitored the location and activity of cars. And computer software enabled individual banks to watch and assess every one of millions of transactions on a given day, looking for signs that you might be a criminal, a tax cheat, or have questionable ties to unsavory people. Cities and businesses and schools installed more and more cameras, some loaded with automated face recognition programs.

    Almost everyone you do business with collected information about you, sold it to someone else, or sifted it for their own mercantile ends. In some cases, you eagerly sought out the benefits and conveniences they offered in exchange for your information. By now those bargains are being transformed, usually without your input, into a public-private security infrastructure, the likes of which the world has never seen. (5)
(For a humorous take on this technology see the online pizza order video.)

If 9/11 hadn't happened we might not ever really have been aware of how much data was being gathered. Data brokers have been quietly making use of public records for a long time. Public Records are defined as materials that are open to inspection by anyone. This can include:
  • government contracts with businesses;
  • birth, marriage, and death certificates;
  • court files;
  • arrest records;
  • property ownership information;
  • tax information;
  • and driver's license information and occupational licenses.
Public records often contain personal information because it is required when we interact with the government to do things like voting. However, there is generally no restriction on the purpose for which the information contained within public records can be used. Data brokering companies have made a business out of gathering this information and using it to provide services and convenience to consumers as well as background checks for businesses and to look for and prevent fraud.

What 9/11 did was to shift the balance of privacy versus security and it brought the data industry out into the open. Most of the industry was motivated not just by profit but also by a real desire to protect the country from attacks like the ones that occurred on September 11. The data industry was in part blinded by the information already available and what just they could do with just a little bit more. And politicians became eager to ignore constitutional principles and certain individual's privacy if they could provide a sense of security to the country and maybe themselves once again.

O'Harrow is a reporter and a storyteller, and he uses his storytelling skills to make this mind boggling array of companies and government agencies more understandable. He also includes personal stories that show the impact of mistakes in these databases -- from victims of identity theft who are in financial jeopardy and under enormous emotional strain to travelers detained at airports because of the similarity of their names to those of criminal suspects, even when the sex and ages don't match.

O'Harrow effectively presents many sides of this enormously challenging issue through out the book. His evenhandedness underscores the theme we have seen reoccur with many technology advances, the work of well-intentioned people goes oft astray. No Place to Hide is a thorough look at the issues that leans in favor of the privacy community but still keeps a balanced look at the issue and never becomes alarmist and resists the temptation to demonize the other side.

Lisa Smith:
Lisa Smith is the information technology specialist for the American Humanist Association. She recently published an article under the Humanism and Society column of The Humanist Magazine and is a member of Computer Professional for Social Responsibility (CPSR) and does frequent work in the Privacy and Civil Liberties section of their website.  <lsmith@americanhumanist.org>

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