It’s that time again. We’re on the move — feasting, sharing, shopping, giving thanks. And we are being tracked every step of the way. So here’s a quick guide to the state of the unblinking electronic eye, 2014 Holiday Edition.
Flying home? Every passenger on every flight is recorded on digital manifests. Every plane is tracked. And even before you board, airports are among the most intensively surveilled public spaces, full of cameras and other monitoring devices. Some airports even use tiny sensors hidden in lighting fixtures that, according to the New York Times, can spot long lines, read license plates and report “suspicious activity” to authorities.
Taking the train? All aboard for monitoring. Ticket transactions happen with computers – or online – typically with credit cards, making it easy to follow any passenger or all of them. Train stations, meanwhile, are nearly as camera-laden as airports.
Uber or Lyft? Smartphone-based car services collect massive amounts of precise data, including your name, cell number, starting point, ending point, pickup time, drop-off time and exact route. Plus, that same data is collected on every other rider as well, making it easy for those with access to the databases to analyze who is seeing whom, when, where and, with a bit of imagination, why.
Driving yourself? The web of surveillance is a bit looser here, but there are countless license plates readers on our highways, both fixed and mounted on government vehicles. Databases collect such information for easy sharing. Those handy electronic toll payment systems, such as EZ Pass, are tracking you too. Highway rest areas are heavy on the video monitoring. And likely coming soon: facial recognition systems.
Walking? Both our big cities and small towns increasingly are thick with surveillance cameras, including newer generations that can see for miles, with amazing precision. Then there’s the rising use of overhead surveillance, from airplanes, drones, and aerostats, those blimp-like craft floating above some border areas.
What about a horse on backwoods trails? Hot air balloon? Offroad mountain bike? Well, even if you manage to avoid the ground cameras and the drones, there’s still that pesky phone in your pocket. If you’ve flipped on location services for your iPhone, maybe so Google Maps can keep you from getting lost, Apple and Google both are getting location data from you. So are the operators of many others apps.
Too paranoid to use a smartphone? Even the oldest, dumbest flip phone has to communicate with cell towers in order to work, meaning Verizon or AT&T – and potentially the government – know what cell tower your phone is using and in some situations can remotely activate GPS systems. Location technology initially developed for 911 calls also can estimate how close you are to various towers, making it easier to home in on your exact coordinates. Altitude measurements – revealing what floor you are on — are next.
The U.S. Marshals Service, meanwhile, is flying airplanes with surveillance gear that collects nearby cell signals, helping track fugitives, drug dealers and – whether intentionally or not – everyone else at the same time, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Bear in mind that all these systems operate passively, continuously, even if nobody is looking for you. If you are an actual target of the authorities – be it your government or somebody else’s — there are even more powerful tools available. Surveillance companies sell malicious software to install on smartphones for tracking locations, browsing your e-mail and activating video cameras and microphones.
The latest cell phone tracking technology reportedly can find you in almost any country in the world, even without a court order or the help of the phone company.
And if you’re staying close to home, your local police may have an IMSI catcher – sometimes called a StringRay — they can set up outside your home and business to collect your cell phone signals. With that, authorities can track all your communications and Internet traffic while getting a rough idea of your physical movements as well.
These are just the techniques that we know about. No doubt there are others in operation and still others in development.
So travel safe, smile for the cameras and enjoy a Happy Tracksgiving!
Or for the benefit of all those systems that now track the public mood on social media: #HappyTracksgiving! Please tweet out anything I’ve missed.
Craig Timberg is a national technology reporter for The Post.