Sunday, June 25, 2006


What ho! We hope our friends in the right-wing paranoid fringe will not be too terribly disappointed to learn that bar-code tattoos, long prophesied by eschatological scholars as a certain harbinger of apocalypse, will not be necessary after all:
Within the next four months, a major Bay Area supermarket chain plans to introduce a payment system that uses biometric fingerprint authentication to verify customers' identities. Under this system, shoppers in checkout lines won't need to use cash, checks, debit cards or credit cards. Instead, they can place their fingers on scanners that read fingerprints, and once the device links to their bank or credit card accounts, they can buy groceries, get cash back and do everything else shoppers do . . . .

Despite the fact that armed men guard the computers that store the customers' virtual fingerprints, despite the fact that Bank of America's former security chief now heads Pay By Touch's security division, and despite the fact that Pay By Touch hires people to try to expose vulnerabilities in its computer system (so those vulnerabilities can be eliminated), Pay By Touch President John Morris acknowledges that "it's not impossible" for computer hackers to figure out how to tamper with its information.

And therein lies one of the 21st century's most vexing problems: More and more of our personal data are captured and stored by corporate and government interests, and are potentially available to anyone with the technological, legal or financial means to access that information . . . .

Background checks are nothing new. What's changed are the speed with which you can obtain them, their relatively small price (some companies advertise free checks) and their growing public acceptance. The information revolution has transformed the background check into a common and casual tool, and those being scrutinized probably don't have a clue. More obvious are the security cameras embedded in nearly every major American city, including New York, Milwaukee, Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles and, yes, San Francisco, where lenses record people's activities in such crime-ridden neighborhoods as Bayview-Hunters Point and the Western Addition. The spread of these cameras is championed by authorities, who say it reduces criminal activity, and criticized by the ACLU, which says the equipment is an unnecessary intrusion into public spaces.

Civil liberties groups have joined the widespread outcry against the government's monitoring of Americans' phone-call records. Two weeks ago in federal court, the ACLU challenged the legal rationale behind the National Security Agency program, arguing that the NSA's actions -- involving "data mining" of records provided by AT&T and other telephone companies -- violate Americans' rights to free speech and privacy as guaranteed under the First and Fourth Amendments. Last week, privacy experts raised questions about the U.S. government's monitoring of international bank transfers -- previously secret data surveillance officials say is justified by the fight against terrorism.

Americans' rights to privacy will be tested even more in the next few years as biometric technology creeps increasingly into everyday arenas. For example, on the campus of UC San Diego, biometric experts are testing a soda machine that uses both fingerprint and face-recognition technology. The machine is in a lounge for grad students in UC San Diego's computer science building.

"The students are very excited about getting it working," Serge Belongie, a UC San Diego associate professor of computer science, says in a phone interview. "People think it's very cool. ... No one uses money. They have accounts. What would be fun is if (the machine) recognizes you and says, 'Would you like your usual?'" . . . .

Citing the recent disclosure by the Veterans Administration, which said a computer with credit information on millions of veterans had been stolen, Dixon says, "The second issue is information security. If the VA can't keep its records secure, which is a government agency that has all sorts of strict controls that are supposed to be in place, how on Earth can a private company without the resources of something like the VA manage to keep something secure? When we have a credit card stolen, we can call the credit card company and say, 'Give me a new number.' But you can't do that with your biometric. You can't say, 'Give me a new fingerprint.' "

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