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In riskier world, personal security trumps personal privacy

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By ROBERT TRIGAUX, Times Business Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 24, 2002


Within the next few weeks, a doctor will inject a computer chip through a syringe into the left arm of 14-year-old Derek Jacobs of Boca Raton.

Once embedded, the radio frequency chip will act as a sort of human bar code, identifying Derek (and his medical allergies) to anyone nearby equipped with an electronic reading device. His mother and father, Leslie and Jeff Jacobs, also plan to get "chipped."

In Brazil, federal minister Antonio de Cunha Lima wants to be implanted with a microchip that would contain his personal information. Why? To convince Brazilians the technology is safe. To serve as a human LoJack to deter what he calls a "shocking rise" of kidnapping in the country.

"I want to be the first politician to be chipped," the Sao Paulo official said.

A New Jersey surgeon implanted a chip in his hip and arm in September. He is testing the device himself after seeing rescuers at the World Trade Center disaster site write their names and Social Security numbers on their arms so they could be identified if they were injured or killed.

The chip in each of these examples is the VeriChip made and now increasingly marketed by a Palm Beach company called Applied Digital Solutions. The chip, which needs an okay by the Food and Drug Administration for use in humans, is slightly smaller than a Tic Tac mint. It has a miniature antenna that emits signals containing about two paragraphs worth of data when scanned by a handheld reader up to 4 feet away. It resembles chips that are used to identify pets and livestock.

Before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, these people would be categorized, at best, as fringe "me-first" tech geeks. At worst, they would be labeled Orwellian drones and lackeys of Big Brother.

Hey, don't these folks care about personal privacy?

But now they are more likely to be viewed as mainstream individuals trying to adjust to a riskier world. Hey, won't this chip give folks a better sense of personal security?

Such is the shift under way in the never-ending privacy-security debate. What was once almost universally condemned as far too intrusive for American society is getting a second and third look and, often, a tentative embrace.

Old privacy lines are shifting. Some civil libertarians, including Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz, now even endorse national ID cards. But the Bush administration rejects the idea.

In addition to the fresh look at human-embedded ID chips offered by a Florida company, here are four fast-rising technologies or policies that -- post-9/11 -- are challenging our views on privacy:

1. TRACKING YOUR INTERNET HABITS: Comcast Corp., a large cable TV company in Philadelphia, agreed this month to stop tracking which Web sites are visited by its individual high-speed Internet customers. In a practice known as caching, cable companies typically store copies of the most frequently requested Web pages on their own network computers. But Comcast went too far by tracking the Web visits of individual users.

2. COMPARING YOUR SCANNED FACE WITH CRIMINAL DATABASES: Privacy advocates condemned the use of facial scanning software in the streets of Tampa's Ybor City and at the 2001 Super Bowl in Tampa, especially when football fans were not told their faces were compared with a criminal database. But after Sept. 11, facial recognition systems have won renewed interest. Several airports, including Boston's Logan International last week, have adopted or are testing crowd-scanning recognition systems to improve passenger safety. A face-scanning system was used to monitor fans at the Winter Olympics ice hockey rink until it was shut down after media publicity. But the technology is gaining wider acceptance.

3. A NATIONAL ID CARD TO REDUCE IDENTITY THEFT: Will the humble state driver's license evolve into a U.S. identity card? Informally, that's what it is now. At least 11 hijackers used false identities or obtained driver's licenses fraudulently. Now a new proposal by state motor-vehicle officials would link the driver databases of individual states. And states want cards that can verify a person's identification through a fingerprint or other unique identifier.

What's driving this movement? Identity theft. It was the most common type of fraud complaint filed last year by American consumers, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Identity-theft complaints rose by 23 percent in 2001, comprising about 42 percent of the 204,000 fraud complaints reported to the FTC.

Even if the feds deny their support for a national identification system, the result of upgrading your driver's license may be a de facto national ID card.

4. NEW SYSTEMS TO IDENTIFY TRAVELERS: Federal aviation authorities and technology companies are about to start testing an air security screening system that would pull together every passenger's travel history, living arrangements and other personal and demographic information. Passengers with a higher threat index would be singled out for additional screening.

Starting next year, Hong Kong will introduce an identity card, complete with a computer chip that contains a digital replica of the cardholder's thumbprint. To cross the China border, a person with the card will hold it against an optical reader in a self-service kiosk while placing his or her thumb on a screen. A print match will mean quick passage.

By 2006 in Britain, citizens may carry "smart" passports that hold their fingerprints and other personal data.

The list goes on and on. Private business is a large part of it.

Example: For all the new legal requirements that companies disclose (and honor) their privacy rules, consumers just don't believe their personal information is safe sitting in corporate computers.

A new business privacy survey by Harris Interactive says the top three consumer concerns are that companies they patronize will provide their information to other companies without permission (75 percent); that their transactions may not be secure (70 percent); or that hackers could steal their personal data (69 percent). The survey, released last week, was done for Privacy & American Business, a nonprofit public policy think tank.

What might calm these fears? The survey found that independent verification of company privacy policies would make a big difference. And 84 percent of consumers surveyed think such verification should be a requirement for companies today.

Old-style privacy advocates still spit and snarl at the growing incursions of technology, even as they slowly lose ground.

New-style privacy advocates are more flexible. Sure, the most outrageous intrusions must be fought. But those that cannot be reversed should instead be controlled. These advocates want more accountability so that any abuse of power can be quickly caught.

In Florida, the Jacobses appear quite willing to become the world's first ID-chip-embedded family. After the events of Sept. 11, plenty more folks find their definition of privacy is changing rapidly.

-- Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8405.

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