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We're All Paranoid (WAP)
personal privacy under attack
Damon Leigh 26th June 2000

Wireless Application Protocol (WAP), the technology that allows internet and email access through the mobile phone networks, offers enormous economic potential and some of the finest minds around are working on monetising it. It could also form a significant new tool in the continuing erosion of personal privacy. Privacy has long been seen in Europe and the US as a right rather than a privilege. Sadly, this right has been heavily abused in recent decades.

Phone Taps, Cameras and ID Cards
One technology-created privacy issue that spans the decades is phone tapping. 'Spycatcher', the book the UK government tried so hard to ban, talks at length about the long-term, systematic and automatic tapping of phone domestic conversations by government agencies starting in the 1960's. Even in recent months there has been a row between the British and Irish governments when it was revealed that MI6 (Military 'Intelligence') have been tapping phones belonging to Irish ministers and senior civil servants throughout the years of Ulster peace negotiations. The Irish are understandably upset.

The advent of video enabled CCTV cameras to be installed, initially in high-security government and military installations and, as the costs fell, in more and more diverse sites. Remember the days when video surveillance cameras were mainly evident in banks, building societies and department stores? Now there's barely a square metre in any town centre where you are off-camera. And if you're heading out of town, there are cameras on most major routes and many railway stations, too.


More recently still, digital photography has opened up the possibility of storing millions of images on a single server. The government has been trying to get personal photo ID cards introduced in the UK for some time, partly as a means of collecting portrait images of every individual in the country. They argue that it will bring the country in line with EU neighbours, that it will make the management of nearly 60 million people easier, and that it will reduce paperwork and costs within the current bureaucracy.

Those against ID cards cite incidents from abroad, both mainland Europe and some of the more heavy-handed regimes around the world, and the scope for abuse is massive. A magnetic strip or chip can hold all sorts of private data such as salary, bank details and medical records yet the cardholder cannot read it, and therefore cannot check or monitor the contents. There is also a clear tendency for an ID card to be required, over time, in more and more transactions, until it is virtually impossible to do anything without one. Once they are required for most transactions, they can then be used for retrospectively tracking the movements of an individual. For more on this, check out the Privacy International website at


The debate has died down for now. But in the meantime, alternatives to ID cards are being introduced in a disguised form. From October 1999, all new passports issued in the UK utilise a digital photograph in place of the standard passport picture. Overtly, this is to enhance passport security, which is a fair argument. However, one implication of this is that by 2009, the UK government will own a database holding around 40 million portrait images. Driving licenses are now being offered for the first time with a photograph of the holder, where the same scenario applies.

There are no compulsory ID cards in the UK but if you want to travel, or you want to drive, then guess what? You're image will be captured along with your personal details, and that is some way along the ID track. So why should you be concerned about having a digital rendering of your delightful features held in a government database? Three words Image Recognition Software. Imagine a scenario where a person is filmed in Central London acting 'suspiciously'. In order to find him, the police freeze the tape at the best moment for a full facial shot, have the image recognition software locate matches in the portrait database, and the 'suspect' is identified immediately. Great news from a crime control perspective, but ask yourself do you want all your movements and actions open to scrutiny at all times without your knowledge? Is that too high a price to pay for safer streets?


It Gets Worse...
As we continue to bring the picture up to date, it begins to look seriously grim for personal privacy. Internet activity has long been monitored in some companies (sometimes down to a keystroke level of detail), but remote activity monitoring is becoming an important tool, too, used by the likes of for gathering aggregated user behaviour information for marketing purposes. And information that can be aggregated can equally be broken out into individual records. Both DoubleClick and Yahoo! are currently being accused in American courts of just such practices. Digital television allows for similar, keystroke-based monitoring of your viewing habits.

Web-enabled video surveillance cameras are already being used for real-time remote monitoring.

Email tapping is an on-going concern, with the US initially banning export of 128-bit encryption technology on the basis that it could be misused by drug smugglers and money launderers to conceal data and illicit email communications. More recently, bills have been discussed in Congress allowing the government to tap electronic communications more or less at will.

Excalibur, the powerful semantic network search tool able to search across multiple media, networks and databases, is having the direction of its development driven by the intelligence communities of the world. To give some idea on how key this has become, just one of the several UK spy agencies using it has recently recorded 3,000 simultaneous hits in normal operation.


WAP phones are now available in Europe and Asia, taking ever more communication into the wireless format and potentially allowing for even easier and more widespread invasions of privacy. Not only that, the Global Positioning System (GPS) is being integrated, not only telling you where you are and where you're going, but potentially telling 'Them' that information, too. Within the year, WAP phones will morph into WAP devices, opening up the potential for wireless hackers (freelance or state-employed) to tap into stored data as well as phone and email communication.

An Integrated Digital Future
Now look at how all this might pan out.
  • Your portrait image is held in a central government database, accessible by all government agencies, and culled from your passport and/or driving license.
  • Linked to your image are the full range of personal information including medical, police, tax, customs and social security records, salary, bank and credit data, foreign travel details and stock trading behaviour.
  • Integrated video surveillance is implemented, using the existing network of CCTV and speed cameras. This is enhanced by real-time video monitoring over the web and geographical tracking of individuals via WAP devices with GPS capability.
  • Powerful image recognition software sits between the national image database and the surveillance feeds, able to instantly identify anyone, anywhere.
  • Mega-search capabilities across all media and multiple databases, enabled by Excalibur, allows for rapid profiling and extensive data capture on any individual.
  • The government database is linked to privately held databases to pull in further data on shopping and spending habits, for example, or TV viewing preferences.
  • Your individual profile grows daily through data and surveillance feeds, with the potential for your entire life to be accessible, with very few gaps.

Three Scenarios
In conclusion, there are three ways in which the issues of privacy could develop;
  1. It's bleak. Privacy is effectively non-existent. All the above is either happening or about to happen, plus many more initiatives as yet unknown.
  2. It's fine. Governments and big bureaucratic agencies are basically cumbersome and incompetent. There is no chance of them ever getting their act together to the extent described above. And even if the will is there, there is a strong tendency for massively complex IT-based projects to be scaled down or scrapped.
  3. It's worrying. Things are not as grim as 1, not as disorganised as 2, and we need to remain constantly vigilant to protect remaining privacy.
Regardless of the 'reality' of the situation, tech companies need to think quite carefully about their role in the development and dissemination of Web and WAP technology that has the potential, at least, to completely erode personal privacy.

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