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Gadgets play role of Big Brother

Everything from Webcams to seemingly innocuous devices such as your TV remote control can track your every move, privacy advocate Richard Smith says.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--Watch out: They're spying on you.

Makers of everything from Webcams to seemingly innocuous devices such as your TV remote control or MP3 player can track your every move.

Privacy advocate Richard Smith warned of the surveillance potential of Web-enabled machines at the Computers Freedom and Privacy 2001 Conference here. Smith said such devices are becoming cheaper and, as a result, more prevalent.

"Gadgets are becoming more Internet-enabled, and that becomes very interesting from a surveillance perspective," Smith said. "If you want to tail somebody, there are all these neat technological devices."

The conference, which has been sparsely attended and slightly rearranged because of a snowstorm that paralyzed much of the East Coast on Tuesday, focuses on technology's effect on society.

Smith, chief technology officer of the nonprofit Privacy Foundation, has made a name for himself discovering and investigating serious privacy violations by corporations and the government.

During his speech, he warned that devices designed to make our lives easier could also be used for nefarious purposes. Smith ran down a laundry list of gizmos that can capture marketing data, spy on individuals, or track people, often without their knowledge.

The first group of devices, which Smith called "direct marketing data pumps," tracks individuals' habits and hobbies, in the hopes of "selling you more stuff." Smith named devices including the Sportsbrain, a Web-enabled pedometer that traces the times and distances its wearer walks; the Mysmart.pad, a mouse pad that sends someone's favorite Web sites back to the company; and even the TV remote control, which could be used by set-top box companies to follow individuals' Web surfing and tube watching.

Convenient, yes. Potential for abuse? Yes.
Smith also pointed out that Creative Technology's Nomad Jukebox, an enormously popular digital music player, asks people who install the software if they mind being contacted by the company with promotional messages based on the CDs they transfer to the machine. Smith said he appreciated at least being asked before his listening habits were tracked, but he said the practice could open the company to criticism similar to that leveled at RealNetworks, which faced a PR disaster for tracing the listening habits of RealJukebox users.

Although Smith, a self-described "gadget freak," praised many of the appliances for introducing a new level of convenience into people's lives, he also said consumers should watch out for abuse.

"We're sort of getting into territory human beings haven't been in before," he said.

Smith's second category of devices included biometrics. He commended the security applications of biometric technology, pointing out that it can be used to protect bank accounts and computer terminals.

"At the same time, (these devices) allow people to track us, and track us in ways we may not even realize," he said.

For example, Smith pointed out that face recognition technology, which is often used to authenticate individuals, also can be used for more unsettling purposes, such as capturing images and comparing them to databases of criminals' mugs--as was done during the Super Bowl. Smith also cautioned that fast passes, which allow people to whiz past toll booths without scrounging for change, could be used by private eyes and jealous spouses to track a person's whereabouts.

Smith's final category of potentially dangerous gizmos included those that turn anyone into a private eye, allowing them to snoop with remote-enabled Webcams, surreptitiously record keystrokes, or locate cellular phones using a GPS (Global Positioning System). Again, Smith acknowledged the value of the technology, saying Webcams could be used to check the weather at your vacation homes and GPS could let taxi companies keep track of their cabs. But he warned they also introduce a new level of cheap and easy surveillance into people's daily lives.

In the future, Smith said, people should be wary of innovations, including digital business cards, which can execute tracking programs when people insert them into their computers, and IBM's Bluetooth wireless technology, which Smith said could be used to snoop on people.