Thursday, January 12, 2006

Stalkers of the world unite

Did you know that your cellphone records can be bought by anybody for $110? Neither did I, until a couple of days ago. Apparently it's real. A popular blogger tested it out and was able to get ahold of 2004 presidential candidate Wesley Clark's phone records for about $90.

This is the latest (and to my mind, most frightening) development in the ongoing erosion of the private sphere. In the background, largely invisible sentries track our every move. Cookies log our websurfing habits. Supermarket discount cards register our grocery purchase patterns. Credit card companies monitor usage (and will alert you if your spending pattern becomes "irregular"). The government may be eavesdropping on your phone conversation. Employers can look over your e-mail. Huge consumer-info databases sell all of this information to unknown third parties.

In order to keep sane, one has to accept much of this as a hassle of modern living. This one's different. It affects all of us. Reporters receiving anonymous tips from whistleblowers might stop getting them. Public figures may now see their phone records as grist for the US Weekly mill. Anybody involved in troubled marriages, business partnerships, etc. may now find it irresistible to try get the dope on a partner to try to confirm their suspicions.

You've been harboring that crush on that fetching co-worker six cubicles down? Curious about her private life? Now you can pay $110 and retrieve her cell phone records! Wondering what your ex-boyfriend is up to these days? $110 dollars.

It's one thing to cyberstalk someone on Friendster or his/her blog. The subject being stalked there is availing himself in a public forum. This is something else entirely. Cell phone records have an expectation of privacy. As a private citizen, you're only supposed to be able to get your hands on another private citizen's cell phone records if you're involved in litigation where this information is highly relevant. There's a procedure for that -- a subpoena issued by the court. Now you can bypass the pesky requirements of legal procedure for a nominal fee.

This is the democratization of Big Brother. Now anyone can be watching you. If he or she is willing to shell out a hundred bucks.