Chapter 10 from No Place to Hide
by Robert O'Harrow, Jr.
Richard Smith opened the door of the Starbucks near the corner of Amsterdam and 70th Street on Manhattan's Upper West Side. He stepped up to where other customers were ordering their coffee concoctions and pointed to the wall behind the clerk's head. Hanging there was a black cube. It was smaller than a wallet and connected to a narrow cable. Smith smiled knowingly. It was a surveillance camera.
He turned toward a set of tables and upholstered chairs, where young, caffeinated folks typed away at laptop computers or talked on their mobile phones. Some of them were connected to the Internet through a wireless network known as WiFi. Starbucks offers the service as a convenience to attract the digerati who like to get wired while working. It happens also to be an extremely efficient data collection mechanism, forever noting the presence of computers and the times and places of contacts.
Smith walked back out to the street, looked around, and headed toward a subway station. As in many cities, the public transit system in New York no longer allows people to use tokens. To boost efficiency, turnstiles now rely on small cards with magnetic strips. These strips enable straphangers to cut the time it takes to ride by paying for many trips at one time, with a credit card if they choose. All they have to do is swipe the MetroCard to get in. Those cards also record travel activity. As he examined the vending machines, he noticed something else: security cameras behind a one-way mirror.
Over and over, Smith found that someone or something was looking at people electronically, sweeping up information, sending it across digital networks. He went to a Kinko's store and paused at a device that enabled customers to use a credit card to make copies. He stopped in a small deli and found an ATM. There was a "hand reader" at a grocery store that clocked employees in. They're all sensors that record identities and the times and places of transactions.
As he walked on the street, he pointed out people using their mobile phones and cameras hanging over building entrances. Even a new Porsche SUV parked on Broadway served as a sensor: its satellite navigation system was designed to pinpoint and record exactly where the driver was on the planet.
Smith is a former computer programmer, an Internet specialist, a nerd of a very high order. At forty-eight, he has a beard, bushy eyebrows, and a serious demeanor that masks a ready sense of irony and humor. He has devoted years to the study of data collection and surveillance networks. In the late 1990s, it was Smith who uncovered the technical underpinnings of several surreptitious methods of tracking people online, including something dubbed "Web Bugs." He found code in Microsoft Word documents that showed who had handled them. Then as a computer consultant he began tracking the accelerating convergence of many commonplace electronic devices and networks that collect information about us.
In short, he is one of the very best at watching those who watch us, a technical guy who understands the deepest implications of the data revolution and the partnership between government and the information industry. "What has changed is that we might have a thousand times more data for law enforcement to work with," Smith said. "And human beings have never lived in that regime before."
That perspective made him an excellent surveillance tour guide of New York that day, in late summer 2003. It took him no effort: finding sensors on the Upper West Side was as easy as spotting pigeons in the park. They were everywhere, electronic sentinels, absorbing information about so many individuals and sending it to databases, public and private, as the digital fuel for our emerging surveillance society.
Smith got into his own car, a Volvo, and pulled out some electronic "goodies" he keeps handy to demonstrate his ideas. One device was a global positioning system, or GPS, receiver that, when connected to a laptop, tells him exactly where he is at any given moment. It was a two-year-old model that cost about $100 when he bought it. It had enough storage to hold the equivalent of about 6 million pieces of paper filled with information. That's relatively small compared with what he could have bought for $100 that day: a new system with four times the storage capacity. Then he showed off a wireless camera. It was smaller than the one he noticed at Starbucks, a cube about as wide across as a postage stamp. Operating on a 9-volt battery, he said, it can broadcast a television signal up to 200 feet.
He started his car and drove south toward the Lincoln Tunnel, not far from the Empire State Building. The global positioning system was on and tracking our every move. But Smith was not as impressed with it as he used to be. New cell phones, he said, can be programmed to transmit their location every few seconds to the mobile network. He steered his way through the tunnel and, on the New Jersey side, went to a tollbooth.
Government agencies have been collecting tolls forever at bridges, some highways, and on ferries. Until the early 1990s, the vast majority accepted only coins and currency. The point was to collect money. Now the role of tollbooths is evolving. More and more, they're also becoming a matter-of-fact part of a security and law enforcement infrastructure as digital checkpoints. Cameras are often pointed at drivers' faces and their license plates. When drivers use an electronic transponder such as E-ZPass to automatically pay the tolls, they're also handing over information about themselves.
That's what happened, with zero fanfare, when Smith drove slowly by the booth. The transponder, held against his windshield, sent out a signal that he was coming. The system knew it was his car, because he had previously registered and shared his bank account number. The technology in the tollbooth took note of the identification number and exact time and location that the car passed by. In the vast majority of these transactions - and there are millions of them every day now in the United States - drivers get what they pay for: convenience. Millions of transponders have been issued since the E-ZPass system was first installed in the New York region in the early nineties. On some days, more than eight of ten cars going into Manhattan use them. They're not just for tolls anymore. Fast-food customers use transponders to charge snacks, while airport parking lots use them to deduct fees. "It has just revolutionized the way our operation is run," a transit authority official said.
The devices are also helping to change the way police think about their work. When an assistant U.S. Attorney in Baltimore named Jonathan Luna went missing in December 2003, one of the first things investigators obtained were the electronic toll credits (in addition, of course, to credit card records and surveillance video). They were able to show that his Honda Accord had wound its way through three states before he ended up drowned, in a Pennsylvania creek, with thirty-six stab wounds to his body. Attorneys also rely on such systems to establish the whereabouts of their clients, or their adversaries' clients.
Smith said the heart of the system, the thing that makes it all work, is something called radio frequency identification, or RFID. In the case of most toll systems like E-ZPass, that's the transponder. The ones most drivers use, as with almost everything digital, are becoming dated. They're clunky, he said, nothing at all impressive compared to the minute identity tags that are about to change our world.
Think about your daily routine, and you will begin to understand Smith's idea about convergence and what this means for you. When you wake up and sign on to the Internet and browse the Web, companies record where you go, the pages you access, anything you order or buy. If you go to a newspaper site, it records everything you read, because you have voluntarily registered and they know who are you. Suppose you turn on your TiVo machine? That act is being recorded. So is the fact that you're watching last night's Daily Show.
You use your debit card for breakfast on the way to your office. Or you hop in your car and pass through E-ZPass. There are cameras at the parking garage, subway station, and, of course, the bank and Starbucks. Depending on the city you live in, a camera system is monitoring the streets, even at stoplights. If you take money from the ATM at lunch, there's a growing chance that artificial intelligence is probing that transaction for signs you may be a terrorist or money launderer or have ties to unsavory people.
At work, you use a magnetic strip ID card, or an iris scan or a fingerprint or face recognition system to enter the building. The time and date of your arrival are kept, possibly forever, in a computer system. Your exit at lunch is recorded by one computer. The fact you stopped by the pharmacy to pick up your prescription is recorded by others, some of them run by entities across the country known as pharmacy benefit managers. Your computer is a sensor, of course, and chances are the boss is recording the email you typed to your pal and the fact you ogled the swimsuit edition of a sports magazine online. There's a better chance they're recording you the old-fashioned way, with a camera, perhaps when you leave work early or take a cigarette break. Driving home in that new Cadillac? If so, you're probably taking advantage of the global positioning system like Smith's because, after all, it's pretty nifty technology. At home, you can't resist buying that sweater or book or "sensual gift" from a catalogue for your spouse. And when you call the 800 number to order, their computers are recording and taking note of everything: your phone number, name, voice, and key words that you use. That's because the phone, linked to computers, has become a sensor, too.
It's no stretch to say the future of data collection - one part of it, anyway - is embedded in the rubber casing of Smith's Volvo key. It's a radio frequency tag built into the key as part of an anti-theft system. Without the key in hand, thieves would have a much tougher time starting the computer-laden car. It's a modest example of a much larger trend. In just a few years, these tags have become cheaper and better, and they're spreading fast. That's in part because they don't need a power source to work. Unlike the transponders used for electronic tolls, the tags need only to be scanned by a low-power device. They echo back the information they contain, extraordinarily long strings of unique numbers and codes. Those codes provide links to files already on computer servers, enabling someone doing the scanning to know precisely what object or person they have encountered. The latest tags can hold 128 bits. That's a very big number - bigger really than you can imagine. It means, Smith said, that virtually everything in the universe could be labeled with a tag containing a unique number.
There's no end to the potential use of these things, which means that there is no end to the kinds of product monitoring or personal surveillance by companies, law enforcement, or private investigators. Such thinking has naturally stoked industry expectations. Some observers estimate spending on the tags will jump from $91.5 million in 2003 to $1.3 billion in 2008. Even discounting for hype, that's a lot of tracking. Like 6 million other people, for instance, Smith also has something called Speedpass to automatically pay for his gas at Exxon. Manufacturers are already putting RFID on pallets to ease logistics. Instead of having to read a label and record something in a computer, a worker only has to pass a wand within a few feet to record exactly what's on the pallet, where it came from, where it's supposed to go. (Indeed, when linked to databases, there's literally no end to the information that could be appended to the ID code at the moment a wand apprehends it.) In 2003, retail giant Wal-Mart mandated that suppliers begin using RFID starting in 2005 to improve efficiencies and cut down on costs. The Defense Department followed suit, saying that its own top suppliers had to begin using the technology in January 2005. The Food and Drug Administration, meanwhile, said it is studying the feasibility of putting the devices in drug containers as part of a "track and trace" program to prevent counterfeiting. Casinos are in on the new technology. Gambling chip makers have begun manufacturing chips containing the ID system both to fight fraud and to monitor high rollers.
Radio frequency chips and readers likely will also be components in the "virtual border" to be created as part of the border surveillance program called U.S. Visit. Accenture, the giant consulting firm that won the enormous contract to build the system, used its familiarity with RFID to help distinguish itself from other contractors.
Some companies already are talking about embedding the devices into paper currency. Hitachi produces a chip that appears suited to that task. The Japanese company sent out a vial containing perhaps one hundred of them. At first glance the vial looked empty; only on closer inspection was it apparent the chips were in there, off to one side, black and minute. They looked like fleas.
About the same time, the director of the Enterprise Charter School in Buffalo began using the electronic tags to monitor the movements of students. Every student has to wear an ID card containing the tag. When they arrive at school, the tag triggers a kiosk to record their presence and display their photos. The same technology is used in a Texas jail and on wristbands to track prisoners of war in Iraq. For the school, it's about security and efficiency. "Before, everything was done manually - each teacher would take attendance and send it down to the office," the school's director Gary Stillman told Wired.com. "Now it's automatic, and it saves us a lot of time."
A firm called SAMSys Technologies, meanwhile, uses the tags to create an all-purpose surveillance tool for amusement parks called the SafeTzone System. Everybody at the park would get a SafeTzone Locator, a watch-size tracker. Parents could use it to find their kids on an electronic map, buy goodies for them without pulling out their wallets, and cut down on waiting times for rides. They bill it as a combination of gee-whiz and surveillance, in one tiny package. "The SafeTzone System is making the entertainment park experience more enjoyable and less frustrating for families and groups."
The people promoting the tags are effusive "Try this quick quiz. What tiny technology can help cut credit card fraud, turn a piece of plastic into an intelligent stored value card, improve customer relationship management at banks and retail outlets, and perform countless other valuable tasks? Give up?" Vicki Ward, an IBM executive, wrote in a marketing paper. "The answer is RFID tags. And based on the momentum of their uptake in the first half of 2003, they are about to enter everyone's lives much sooner than many industry observers had expected. RFID - radio frequency identification - is a technology that is rapidly crossing over from being expensive and experimental to universal usefulness."
Ward has seen the future from the inside. IBM is working on a sweeping new approach to customer identity. It wants to put the electronic tags in your credit cards, bank passbooks, and anything else that will enable businesses to automatically "know you" when you arrive. This is another one of those customer relationship management initiatives - the same impulse that fueled the data revolution of the 1990s. The project is named "Margaret," for the mother-in-law of Paul McKeown, a senior executive in charge of "smart card" initiatives. It seems that Margaret went into her local bank one day and no one recognized her. Someone asked for her identification, which she neglected to bring along, and then sent her away. McKeown figured that should never be allowed to happen, particularly not to "high-net-wealth" individuals. So the "Margaret" project was begun.
Other initiatives also are likely to show up in your own wallet - or in your arm - before too long. At the end of 2001, a New Jersey surgeon embedded one about the size of a grain of rice under his skin. (He was among the first to join millions of pet dogs and cats that had the RFID implanted, to enable animal welfare agents to track and identify them.) Later on, a Florida family, quickly dubbed the "Chipsons," had the IDs injected into their arms by a company trying to capitalize on the technology. Now the company, Applied Digital Solutions, is marketing its VeriChip system in Mexico and South America. It claims the embedded tags will improve the security of buildings and children. One company called MetroRisk, a security company, bought 2,100 VeriChips and dozens of scanners at the end of 2003. The next year, Attorney General of Mexico Rafael Macedo de la Concha and dozens of colleagues had the chips implanted as well, enabling them to easily pass through an electronic checkpoint in a new anticrime facility.
The email to Katherine Albrecht arrived on December 15, 2003. "Ms. Albrecht, I am an employee of Grocery Manufacturers of America, the world's largest association of food, beverage and consumer product companies," it began. "I was wondering if it would be possible for me to attain [sic] a copy of your biography for our sources."
The note struck Albrecht as odd. For several years, she had run an advocacy organization called Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering. Her group initially focused on shopper cards that grocers used to track customer purchases and give them discounts. The grocery industry was among the leaders in trying to parlay personal information and database profiling into more targeted marketing. That offended Albrecht, who considered such efforts intrusive and argued customers didn't understand the bargain they were making when using the cards. She was savvy about how to create a public stink by publicizing how the efforts work, sending out dispatches on the Internet and questioning the companies relentlessly. When she turned her attention and research to the use of identification tags in products, she threatened to create a public policy flap that could cost the industry a lot of time and money.
Albrecht decided she had better write back and find out a little more from the group. The day after she got the email, she sent her own note: "Per your request I can send you a bio under separate cover. ... But as your request is a bit unusual, you have me curious. (I am used to being interviewed or invited to speak somewhere before being asked for a bio.)"
Then came a surprise, yet another message evidently not intended for her eyes. "I don't know what to tell this woman! 'Well, actually we're trying to see if you have a juicy past that we could use against you,'" wrote a young woman who worked with the Grocery Manufacturers' public affairs officials. A spokesman dismissed it as an inside joke, a flippant remark by an inexperienced employee. But Albrecht was floored. "I was laughing and horrified. 'You've got to be kidding,'" she recalled thinking to herself. It took a few minutes for the creepiness to set in.
"My thinking was, 'Holy shit. They are out to get me.'"
It was a small exchange in the early struggle over the implications of radio frequency identification. Supporters like IBM, Accenture, and retailers contend the technology offers profound opportunities for efficiencies and improved security and an entirely new level of one-to-one marketing. With enough tag readers, companies could manage their goods and get to know their customers in a completely new way. Skeptics like Albrecht believe the tags will be revolutionary for another reason. As they become smaller, and the readers more powerful, monitoring could become almost ubiquitous. It would be like having real-world "cookies" linked to us, sending back information about everywhere we go.
Albrecht's legwork has documented how far research of the tags already goes: soap packages, aerosol cans, shampoo bottle caps, coffee cans, paper dog-food bags all carry forms of the ID. Tag manufacturers are rushing ahead with new forms. One company embeds metal fibers into paper that can be read as a "signature" that serves as a unique code. Another company called Intellitag builds chips into a plastic "credit card format" that it calls an intelligent identification card. Homeland security, luggage tags, customer loyalty cards? The company is pitching them all. It's already being used by some government officials at border crossings. "For security applications," the company's promotional material said, "the unique write [sic] capability of the Intellitag ID card enables it to act as an 'electronic passport.'"
A couple of organizations, including a federation of research universities, are working on a standard that would enable every manufactured item in the world to be given a unique ID, at least theoretically. "The Internet of Things," they call it; "how intelligent tagging is about to change the world." Researchers discount as shrill the criticism and focus instead on the enormous potential for improving logistics and customer convenience. But the readers could take almost any form - or be built into walls, doorways, cars, or planes. The tags, embedded in shoes or luggage or the seams of trousers - officials are contemplating embedding them in airline tickets - might be just the thing for aviation or building security. Or for the intelligence officials who believe that some form of Total Information Awareness will make us safer. Once again, marketers would be leading the way.
Richard Smith drove back through the Lincoln Tunnel and headed downtown. He explained one reason why all this has happened: the accurate prediction three decades ago by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore that computer processing power would double roughly every year. That extraordinary trend yielded many of the electronic gizmos and networks that both dazzle and watch us. "Anything that uses chips will get better, smaller, faster, more mobile," Smith said. "Fundamentally, Moore's Law is driving the creation of these surveillance networks. One of the fruits of Moore's Law is the Internet, that unimaginably complex global computer network that was born coincidentally the same year that Moore made his famous observations. It's built on systems, or protocols, that break up information into packets, whip them to the right destination, and put them back together, all in a flash.
Though programmers could not have foreseen the particulars, this system, often known as TCP/IP, has been able to accept an amazing array of other kinds of technology and activities, including the World Wide Web, Internet telephony, video transmission, ATM transaction, mobile phone service. The list goes on and on. Before long, our phones, laptop computers, PalmPilots, watches, pagers, and much more will play parts in the most efficient surveillance network ever made. Forget dropping a coin into a parking meter or using a pay phone discreetly on the street. Those days are slipping by. The most simple, anonymous transactions are now becoming datapoints on the vast and growing matrix of each of our lives. "The fact that you did something at a particular time," Smith said, "will be recorded and will never go away until the last hard drive is destroyed."
As he negotiated the streets of New York, Smith was becoming more philosophical. Behind the technician's mask was someone who cared deeply about American values, autonomy, privacy, and such. "We all like many of these surveillance systems because they provide us with convenience," he said. "Cell phones - they allow us to talk when we aren't at home. We can talk when we are on the road and get information. We can talk to our family. Credit cards help us to buy things easier. We don't have to carry around as much cash. We love fast lanes because it allows us to avoid that twenty-minute line. All of these things, they benefit us. And by and large these systems are being put in to benefit us. The trouble is, there are secondary uses, and it's law enforcement and lawyers. In a legal situation, the more information the better. And that is the disadvantage that we are going to be talking about a lot more."
Why worry if you have nothing to hide? "We have nothing to worry about," he said, tongue in cheek, "until they make a mistake."
The convergence Smith sees takes many forms, some of them a strange mix of mundane and extraordinary technology. That's what James Turner learned after renting a Chrysler Voyager. Turner was a box office manager at the Palace Performance Arts Center in New Haven, Connecticut. In October 2000, he rented the minivan from a company called Acme Rent-A-Car. He paid with a debit card and headed south to Virginia, where he was planning to review some shows to stage at his theater. Like many of the drivers around him, Turner zipped down I-95, going more than 80 miles an hour. But unlike most of them, Turner was being watched from above, his every move recorded.
It turns out that Acme had installed a global positioning system in the car. It was called the AirIQ. It included a computer in the vehicle, a transmitter, and a back-end server that enabled Acme to watch Turner's progress on a Web page. Had they wanted, Acme officials could have shut the car down. The rental agreement alluded to all this, but he apparently didn't notice. Turner found out what was happening when he got to Virginia and tried to buy gas with the same debit card he had used to rent the minivan. He was denied. When he called his bank, a clerk told him that Acme had made three withdrawals for a total of $450. That was the penalty assessed for three speeding violations in Connecticut, New Jersey, and Virginia.
In effect, Acme had become a remote traffic enforcer, using satellites, the Web, pint-sized computers, and transmitters as its tools. Turner sued, charging Acme with invading his privacy. Included in the court records were maps that showed the exact longitude and latitude of Turner's Voyager, down to six decimal places, and the exact time he was speeding, down to the second. "Said surveillance by Defendant seriously interfered with the Plaintiff's solitude, seclusion and in his private affairs," said the papers his attorney filed in Connecticut Superior Court. The trial date was set for the spring of 2004. "The Defendant knew or should have known the use of a 'GPS' system would be offensive to persons of ordinary sensibilities."
Turner also submitted a claim to the state Department of Consumer Protection. After an investigation, the department ordered Acme to stop fining people, and to return the speeding fees. Turner wasn't the only one watched and tagged by the company. "It's horrible. It's like I was some sort of an animal that was tagged by scientists so they could observe my mating habits," another driver told Wired. "Like I really want these guys to have a record of exactly where I went with the car I rented from them? A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing."
Such systems are only getting better, as New York Times writer John Schwartz showed at the end of 2003. Schwartz focused on a company called OnStar and a personal security system it offers to include in new cars. Many drivers welcome the system as a source of comfort and convenience because it serves as an automated guide and enables drivers to call directly to OnStar operators. It can unlock doors, and even helps police track down thieves. But Schwartz, who has written about privacy and civil liberties issues for years, knew there was more to the story. If OnStar could listen in as a convenience, it could also listen in to eavesdrop. "OnStar is one of a growing number of automated eyes and ears that enhance driving safety and convenience but that also increase the potential for surveillance," Schwartz wrote. "Privacy advocates say that the rise of the automotive technologies, including electronic toll areas, location-tracking devices, 'black box' data recorders like those found on airplanes and even tiny radio ID tags in tires, are changing the nature of Americans' relationship with their cars."
Two years earlier, FBI agents in Las Vegas got a court order giving them the right to listen in on a system much like OnStar (though the company was not identified in court papers). The agents had access to the conversation in one suspect's car for thirty days before the company got cold feet and asked a federal court to block the eavesdropping. Another company called Networkcar promises to track a vehicle and monitor its performance for $1,000. The service offers remote sensors that automatically send the information to a tailored page on the Web. Among other things, it uses a GPS system to record the history of the vehicle activity. Parents use the system to watch where their children go. Some Marine Corps officials are using it to track their own drivers.
Another tracking system is in the works by the company called TransCore. They're the company that operates the electronic E-ZPass toll systems. Now TransCore wants to use paper-thin transponders - RFID tags affixed to the windshield - that would enable government agencies to electronically track whether motorists have proper insurance coverage, registration, or unpaid traffic tickets. Not surprisingly, the company promotes the service as a convenience to drivers. It came up with a snappy acronym - EVR, short for electronic vehicle registration - to underscore the idea. "Motorists can take advantage of increased speed, convenience, and accuracy as a result of EVR at inspection centers. Using EVR, vehicle information such as VIN, make, model, and license plate number is automatically transmitted to a database for inspector to validate data and perform inspection. After inspection, updated information is loaded to a DMV database for inter-agency use."
In selling the idea to government agencies, TransCore stresses the potential efficiencies - and homeland security benefits. "Government agencies lose millions of dollars each year due to an estimated 7 to 15 percent of vehicles not compliant with annual registration requirements, which trickles down to tax payers and law-abiding citizens who foot the bill," the company's promotional material says. "Increase the level of coverage without significantly increasing the number of agents and ensure public safety using spontaneous monitoring in the face of AMBER Alerts, Homeland Security Threat Level Advisories, or special events that cause traffic congestion."
One of the great movies about surveillance begins with a view of a sun-splashed park. A man high above on the roof of a building with a telescope is watching a couple on an afternoon stroll. It looks like the scope is mounted on a gun, but it's really a high-powered listening device. We hear a dog bark, an emergency siren, the sound of singing and clapping, all of it coming in and out of focus. We see one of the man's colleagues in another building, who is listening to the couple's conversation with other kinds of eavesdropping gear. A third man follows them on the ground, a tape machine concealed in a shopping bag. A fourth monitors all of them from a van made to look like a glass installation service.
This is the opening scene of The Conversation. At its center is actor Gene Hackman, who plays an obsessive surveillance specialist named Harry Caul. He is running the operation and frets incessantly about the recording quality. One of his colleagues happens to be a cop moonlighting for extra cash, and there's a suggestion they may be working as contractors for the Justice Department or Internal Revenue Service. But when one member of the team wonders aloud who is paying them and why and what the conversations they are recording mean, Hackman says it doesn't matter. He just wants to do a good job. "I don't care what they're talking about," he says, sitting inside the van behind a one-way mirror. "All I want is a nice fat recording."
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, the movie came out in 1974, coincidentally the same year the Privacy Act took effect. It captured the brooding angst and paranoia of the day. It also signaled just how far surveillance technology had come - the kind of technology that made Senator Church so uneasy during his study of domestic surveillance by the government. As spooky as it seems, that eavesdropping equipment seems as dated now as a mainframe computer. Gone are the days when tape recorders were used. Now almost everything is digital and all-purpose. The same computer programs can collect and analyze the fruit of all sorts of eavesdropping and surveillance. Mug shots. Telephone calls. Email. Video. Face prints. It doesn't matter, as Smith pointed out, because it's all just data.
The government doesn't have to go to covert contractors like Harry Caul these days to get the best surveillance gear. Intelligence and law enforcement agencies now can order it directly, sometimes off the shelf. One government contractor is Verint Systems, the marketing and eavesdropping specialist on Long Island that attended the International Association of Chiefs of Police technology conference in Philadelphia in late 2003. Verint is short for "Verifiable intelligence." And "Powering Actionable Intelligence" is its motto.
Verint is a prime example of the merging of public and private surveillance, a company accelerating the tendency of all kinds of data to flow together. Its marketing claims at times seem almost like parodies of the security-industrial complex: "Verint solutions transform raw VOICE, VIDEO, AND DATA into ACTIONABLE INTELLIGENCE - mission critical analyses to enhance security and increase enterprise profitability."
Though it markets its equipment to spies and snoops, Verint is a public company based in a modest building in Melville, New York. It has some nine hundred employees around the world, two thirds of whom have technical or engineering backgrounds. Because of its ties to the government and the war on terror, its stock has soared since 9/11, quadrupling from a low of about $6 in August 2002 to more than $25 in early 2004. The company earned $150 million in the year after the terror attacks. By early 2004, it had recorded eight quarters of growth.
But Verint is much more than a government contractor. There's a chance you have come into contact with Verint without knowing it. Home Depot's 1,600 stores are beginning to deploy Verint's video computer surveillance gear. So are Dulles Airport outside Washington, the Capitol Building downtown, and casinos around the country. Verint software not only takes in digital images, it watches the movement of people for signs of trouble or shoplifting. Face recognition can be added. So can programs that help companies like Home Depot analyze customer movement to improve sales. Home Depot officials call this a "multi-dimensional retail tool." The systems at Dulles and the Capitol allow authorities to watch people remotely, say from a secure bunker command post. Or they can revisit the recordings long after the fact, using face recognition to find people who passed through the buildings. The Department of Homeland Security's Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services is using Verint's systems to screen travelers. The company claims it combines computer software and surveillance cameras in a way that predicts when an individual poses a threat. Its "BehaviorTrack" service automatically searches the video for suspicious activity - or a sales opportunity. "By providing real-time alarming, BehaviorTrack allows the appropriate proactive action to be taken. This proactive action may include addressing a security breach or a customer service need."
Verint also improves commercial eavesdropping. A service called ULTRA Customer Intelligence Analytics relies on data mining to listen in on customer voices, search for key words, and prompt salespeople to take action. This is useful to call centers and telemarketers who want to give customers good service on the fly and press the right buttons of people's personalities. Here's how Verint puts it: "Detects subtle, often counter-intuitive patterns and cause/effect relationships from recorded interactions to generate revenue opportunities." One of the newest ULTRA customers is the Internal Revenue Service. The IRS has some 18,000 agents at 46 call centers who handle some 42 million questions every year. Some of those centers began embracing ULTRA in the fall of 2003, to provide what the company called "world-class customer service." The financially adventurous might take care, though, because each call could be recorded and, one assumes, analyzed automatically for signs of tax cheating.
An anchor of Verint business remains government wiretapping, and its customers include the Justice Department, Army Intelligence, and an array of law enforcement and government agencies the company declines to identify. The tools they sell to these agencies provide "an end-to-end solution for live monitoring of intercepted target communications and evidence collection management," according to a stock prospectus. The company describes this as "lawful communications interception, historically referred to as wiretapping."
Verint maintains close ties to the law enforcement and intelligence worlds, here and abroad. The company, founded in 1994, is a subsidiary of Comverse Technology. Sitting on the board are former police and intelligence officials. David Worthley, president of subsidiary Verint Technology Inc., previously worked as chief of the FBI's telecommunications industry liaison unit. That unit was responsible for wiretapping. Director Kenneth A. Minihan is a former lieutenant general who served as director of the National Security Agency. Another director, Howard Safir, was police commissioner for New York City and a former executive in the DEA and U.S. Marshals Service. (He is also a consultant to ChoicePoint and personally advises its president, Derek Smith.) In addition, Verint maintains close ties to the Israeli military and intelligence communities. The company is funded in part through grants from the Israeli government.
The Patriot Act had a salutory effect on Verint's business because, the company said, it "significantly expanded federal wiretap capability and eased the process for acquiring wiretapping warrants for intelligence gathering purposes." The company is predicting even brisker business going forward. The threat of terrorism has made wiretapping a good business to be in these days.
On September 16, 2003, Charles McQueary paid a visit to the National Defense Industry Association. McQueary was the homeland undersecretary in charge of the new Directorate of Science and Technology. He was there to cultivate the association's 950 member companies, and to stoke their inclination to cash in on the historic push to create a homeland security infrastructure.
McQueary praised his audience for being so focused on protecting the United States, for protecting their way of life. Then he encouraged them to think big, far-out ideas about the kinds of research and development they can do to create new brands of sensors and other technology to detect and intercept attacks before they occur. Some of what he's aiming for goes into territory that John Poindexter was exploring. His plans include trying to replicate what he called the "sixth sense" that criminal investigators, border agents, and law enforcement authorities develop after years in the field. "It has been well known for years that experienced agents have developed almost a sixth sense - an ability to pick up on ineffable cues from an individual that indicate deception or otherwise 'raise the antennae' of suspicion," he told the contractors. "Today, we are exploring sensors that capture some of these indicators. There are also other indicators that these agents cannot detect, and for which we are developing capabilities to provide that information. We are working on: infrared detectors that register the heat signals around the eyes that are indicative of an autonomic 'fight or flight' response; and remote sensors for heart rate, or skin galvanic response."
It was another case of reality supplanting science fiction. In 2003, McQueary's people also began supporting the study of ways to enable border patrol to examine the protein fragments on a visitor's skin. They would monitor whether a person has been handling chemicals or other materials that might be used in a weapon of mass destruction. Presumably, the test could also be calibrated to show whether an individual has been handling cocaine, marijuana, or other drugs.
None of this will be easy, but it could be lucrative for those who try. "Let me assure you, we will support you as you support us. So what do we want from you?" McQueary asked the contractors.
"We want you to recognize the economic opportunity that homeland security presents. It is important for all Americans to remember that when the terrorists struck on September 11, 2001, one of their goals was to cripple the U.S. economy. We must remember this and change our mindset to make protecting the homeland a mission that moves our economy forward."
One of the driving forces behind this research is the new Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency (HSARPA), which is modeled on the Defense Department's DARPA. The folks at HSARPA budgeted almost $1 billion on research in 2004, more than $300 million focusing on the development of sensors and other cutting-edge technology. One initiative called "determination of intent" would try to profile the planning activity of suicide bombers and their associates, and then use computer surveillance to seek them out. It was another strong echo of Poindexter's work.
One kind of sensor that's already getting a lot of attention and financial support from the government is called "smart dust." Leading the way on smart dust is a company called, appropriately enough, Dust Networks. Founded in 2002 by engineers from the University of California at Berkeley, Dust builds battery-powered sensors called "motes" that keep getting smaller and smarter. By early 2005, they expect to have a version about the size of a bottle cap that can sense chemicals or the presence of vehicles and maybe take photographs. If several handfuls of these motes are dropped in a nine-square-mile area, they can communicate to one another and then transmit their collective assessment to a main computer, or even a PalmPilot. The company is selling dust as a way to monitor almost anything: the efficiency of refrigerators, the strength of a military convoy, and the activities of people. Eventually smart dust could be as small as a grain of sand and operate for years at a time without new batteries.
David Bolka, the director of HSARPA, said he believes the government's support will accelerate the process of making sensors better, faster, smaller, and cheaper. At the same time Bolka acknowledged his agency's research is going to make some people uneasy. That's why government is already planning to help make people more comfortable with cameras, detection devices, and surveillance systems of all kinds. Otherwise, some are going to become very anxious. "It's the fear of the unknown," he said. "We'll have a backlash from the populace and privacy advocates, and rightly so."
Bolka said he'll leave the task of striking the balance between security surveillance and privacy to others. His job is to speed the creation of the technology, not make the policy to guide its use.
Richard Smith's tour was drawing to a close. He was downtown now, still ticking off surveillance devices. Not far away, one of his clients was installing a new ID system in an office building. There were plenty of cameras around us, some obvious, some not. He said even hotels collect new kinds of information when customers use those new card keys instead of the old metal ones. In Florida, two airline pilots were accused of flying their commercial jet while still drunk from a binge the night before. Prosecutors not only had the bar bill, they obtained records from the electronic locks, which recorded the instant when the card slipped in. The records showed the men returned to their rooms early in the morning, only a few hours before their flight.
Smith shook his head at the idea of so much scrutiny, but as he stood on the street, not far from where almost three thousand people died in the terror attacks two years before, it was clear he had no illusions. The more computer storage space we have, he said, the more likely it is we will fill it up. That's the nature of things. Just as likely is the government's increasing reliance on the many details we leave behind in the routine course of our lives. Law enforcement and intelligence services don't need to design their own surveillance systems from scratch. They only have to reach out to the companies that already track us so well, while promising better service, security, efficiency, and, perhaps most of all, convenience. It takes less and less effort each year to know what each of us is about. When we were at the coffeeshop and where we went in our cars. What we wrote online, who we spoke to on the phone, the names of our friends and their friends and all the people they know. When we rode the subway, the candidates we supported, the books we read, the drugs we took, what we had for dinner, how we like our sex.
More than ever before, the details about our lives are no longer our own. They belong to the companies that collect them, and the government agencies that buy or demand them in the name of keeping us safe. "Our lives are being recorded," Smith said, spelling out a simple truth of life after 9/11. "It is like all of these electronic diaries are being kept by different people."
Only we have no control over the diaries, and we can't even know what they say about us. And there's no place to hide.