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Digital Shadow is watching you

Could a ticket to ride pose a threat to civil liberties?


A project known as EasyRide which allows cashless payment on public transport, has entered its trial phase in Geneva.

Passengers carrying a chip card are registered when getting on and off buses, trams and trains.

Next Monday, the pilot project extends to Basel and 1,800 people will be testing the strengths and weaknesses of the system over the next three months before its planned introduction.

Despite the obvious benefits of such a system, concerns have been voiced that civil liberties are being threatened. Critics say EasyRide is just one more step towards a world where the movements, actions and purchases of every citizen are monitored.

The system is the latest in a series of advances in methods of registering customer data. One of the biggest breakthroughs has been in the area of biometric identification, which allows people to be recognised by the structure of their iris or their fingerprints.

Notebook PCs are being developed which recognise their user by their eyes and refuse strangers access to specific files. In future, biometric identification could be used for checking in at airports or going through customs or when using banking services.

The Technology Assessment Centre in Bern has painted a comprehensive picture of how the information society is penetrating every corner of people's lives.

"Technology is evolving so rapidly and in a direction where this data gathering will be everywhere," says project manager, Danielle Bütschi. "In offices, biometric recognition will give access to different rooms so people will know where you are at any given time.

"In the intelligent home, every instrument will be linked to each other: your television with your coffee machine with your computer and so on, and lots of data will be gathered about you and your household which can be open to misuse."

The trace left behind when surfing the Internet can be followed particularly easy. So-called "cookies", small auxiliary programmes, store themselves on the surfer's hard disk. With their help, an on-line service can find out which pages a customer is interested in.

The same applies to mobile telephones, which thanks to satellite positioning systems allow providers to trace users and follow them wherever they go.

"In [George] Orwell's 'Nineteen Eighty-Four', Big Brother was the omnipotent state which controlled every citizen," says Bütschi. "What we see now is Big Brother is coming but it's very diverse. It's not the state but lots of different enterprises which record your data. Big Brother is a network."

Shoppers using credit cards reveal a lot about themselves: which suppliers and brands they prefer, where they have recently been or shopped or paid a hotel bill, whether they systematically select cheaper goods or can afford more expensive items, not to mention personal data such as names, sex and place of residence.

Customer loyalty cards also document shopping habits and preferences. Two million people now participate in the Cumulus programme, introduced in 1997, by Migros, one of the leading Swiss retailers. Among other things, the data collected by Migros is used by the company for the distribution of brochures on games and children's clothing to households.

Vast amounts of personal information on the state of people's health and finances is registered with life insurance companies and banks.

Bütschi says the data requested from a customer during any one transaction may appear to be irrelevant but start combining the information and you build up a comprehensive picture.

"Our personal data can be collected everywhere when you shop, when you go to the bank, when you go to the doctor, also when you are surfing on the internet so there are many ways to collect information about citizens.

"Taken individually, the data you give to the Migros or your bank may not be so problematic but mixed together these organisations can gain very detailed information about you. There is a huge potential for misuse and we have to be careful in which direction data gathering will develop."

One particular problem, says Bütschi, is that once data is registered and circulating, however erroneous or incomplete, it can hardly ever be got rid of.

The Centre for Technology Assessment has highlighted the problems posed by our information society but does not offer any solutions. Bütschi says the Swiss are divided over the question of state regulation and privacy.

"Some people say the state should play a more active role while others say private enterprise should solve the problem. Half say the law is sufficient while the other half say it is not enough."

On one issue, however, the experts are unanimous. Whatever we do and wherever we go, we leave a trace or digital shadow.

by Vincent Landon


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