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Convenience vs. Surveillance

80% surveyed say the government shouldn't view noncriminals' Web records. - Source: PCworld.com poll
Illustration: Harry Campbell
The scenario: The police are at your house on official business, your inbox is flooded with pornographic ads--and all you did was drive to the mall to buy an anniversary gift. Welcome to wireless location tracking in the year 2020.

On Saturday morning, you jumped into your car and plugged in your new high-speed Internet phone. The phone downloaded data to the car's real-time holographic traffic map and guided you to the mall along the route with the least traffic. To find the jewelry store, you downloaded a map of the mall to your phone. The turn-by-turn directions took you past a new lingerie shop, so you wandered inside for a few seconds. Then you proceeded to the jewelry store, and in 15 minutes your shopping was done.

A little later, you started receiving raunchy multimedia messages hawking sex toys. While you were inside the lingerie shop, the store's data reader pinged your phone via Bluetooth and then automatically bought your contact information from commercial data brokers. Now its affiliate, which sells novelty adult items, can legally market to you via e-mail, claiming an ongoing business relationship.

Next, two police officers show up at your home, explaining that your route to the mall took you past a liquor store at about the time of a holdup there. The culprit escaped in a white car, and in-road sensors flagged yours as one of ten such vehicles then in the area.

Though the police visit is for routine questioning only, and though you'll be able to unsubscribe from the adult-toy marketing list fairly easily, your wireless devices now seem less attractive than they did before. You wish that, when purchasing them and their accompanying services, you had hunted for the opt-out privacy check boxes (required by law) that restrict or prohibit sharing of your sensitive data.

Why it might happen: Your visit to the lingerie shop could allow its owners to e-mail you. "Antispam, junk fax, and telemarketing laws all have established-business-relationship loopholes," says Chris Hoofnagle, a privacy expert at the University of California-Berkeley School of Law. "If you simply drive your car into the parking lot of Sports Authority, the company might argue that you have a business relationship."

The groundwork for tracking a car's location is already in place. Automatic toll-payment systems such as E-ZPass equip cars with RFID transponders that can transmit information about the vehicle, and in 2005 the UK began testing RFID-equipped license plates. Sensors collect only anonymous data right now, but what happens if--in the spirit of an Amber Alert--law enforcement is allowed access to vehicle data to investigate violent crimes?

Special Package: Tomorrow's Technology

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The Future of OSs The Future of You
The Future of Fun 100 Fearless Forecasts
Incredible Tech: Lies Ahead A Look Back
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