You probably already know that when you’re out and about, you’re being watched. Cameras are everywhere, at stoplights, in stores, on public transportation, in police cars, in parking lots, and now, more and more often, in the place you work.
A 2005 survey found half of all employers monitored the workplace with video cameras and it’s reasonable to assume that number has grown in the past eight years.Most employers said they installed the cameras to combat theft, sabotage and violence, but 16 percent said the cameras were used to monitor work performance.
So when you leave your home, you can expect to be on camera. But privacy law has always held that you have the most right to privacy inside your home. But now, there is evidence that even your residence may not be a safe haven from spying eyes.
In September 2012 seven companies that rented laptops were forced by the Federal Trade Commission to remove software from their computers that allowed them to watch and record the activities, in their homes, of the people renting them. The video that was sent back to the rental companies included everything from private conversations to partially clothed individuals to people making love. The companies claimed they loaded the software onto the computers to recover stolen laptops, and also defended themselves by saying the renters agreed to the monitoring in their rental contracts, but the videos they gathered from customers prove there was a prurient interest in spying.
Though these companies were caught and are supposedly no longer doing this, there’s no guarantee the same behavior isn’t going on elsewhere undetected. The software to pirate a laptop’s camera is readily available to anyone. Some laptop users have become so paranoid about the camera that they’ve taped over it to keep unwanted eyes from peeking into their lives.
At least one high school has been accused of using laptops to spy on students at home. In February 2010 a civil lawsuit filed against the Merion, Pennsylvania School District, a suburb of Philadelphia, claimed school administrators used school laptops to spy on students and their families at home. The issue came to light when a student was accused of improper behavior while at home and the school produced a photo taken by school administrators from the school laptop while it was in the student’s home.
Following an investigation of the school district by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, no criminal charges were filed because of the inability to prove criminal intent, it was announced. However, the investigation did reveal that school officials took more than 30,000 photos of 40 different students using the laptops.
If they’re not watching, they’re listening. The FBI has developed technology that allows them to activate the microphone of a nearby cell phone and allow them to use it as a roaming bug to listen to conversations. The technology was held to be legal when it was used in an organized crime investigation.
And just a few weeks ago, Wired.com reported that public buses in several U.S. cities are being equipped by Homeland Security with microphones that can listen to the conversations of bus passengers. San Francisco, Eugene, Oregon, Baltimore, Traverse City, Michigan, Columbus, Ohio, Hartford, Connecticut, and Athens, Georgia are cities that have either already installed the listening systems on buses or plan to install it soon.
The eavesdropping system will feed all recorded conversations into a black box on the bus which will retain the recordings for 30 days. Public officials justified the monitoring by saying it was for passenger safety, but it seems clear the information gathered could be used for anything from marketing to criminal investigations. Combined with facial recognition technology, it could link the spoken words with the identity of the speaker.
So if you get the funny feeling that someone may be watching, or listening, no matter where you might be, your intuition could be right. Big brother is out there, and he’s got his eyes and ears wide open.