Kitty Bernard's Digital Footprints
- 6:15 a.m. Bernard, who is married and has a grandson, pads into the lobby of her Reston, Va., condo complex on the way to the building's gym, and almost no one else is about. But a security camera records her. If the government or a divorce law...
- 6:15 a.m.
Bernard, who is married and has a grandson, pads into the lobby of her Reston, Va., condo complex on the way to the building's gym, and almost no one else is about. But a security camera records her. If the government or a divorce lawyer wants the tapes, they can subpoena them.
- 7:17 a.m.
Bernard returns to her condo after her workout, nestles into a bedroom love seat and fires up her laptop to check e-mail.
She opens a few, deletes 38 more - junk mail from Weight Watchers, a personal trainer, a firm that sells art posters. The U.S. government claims that even before she's opened them, it should have the right to read them if it needs to. The technology exists to do that.
Bernard is not only trackable, but she is a tracker. Through a Web-based notification service, she can see what homes her clients are interested in and copies of e-mails sent to new clients who register on her Web site, KittyBernard.com.
- 8:30 a.m.
She takes a cellphone call from her daughter.
After a brief chat, she hangs up. But her cellphone is still sending its ID signals to the nearest cellular towers, giving her phone company her approximate location. Approximate, but precise enough that the FBI has used such information to locate suspects.
- 8:35 a.m.
Bernard pulls into an Exxon Mobil gas station. She holds a small wand called a Speedpass to a sensor at the gas pump.
The gadget uses radio frequency identification (RFID) waves to charge her Exxon Mobil account directly. No cash. No card swipe.
RFID chips are being placed in credit cards, passports and items on store shelves. The chips can track, conduct transactions and in some cases be hacked. They transmit information to private databases. Civil libertarians fear that one day soon this will mean a retailer could recognize Bernard as soon as she walks in the door, even before she identifies herself, or that data brokers could track how many times she entered a bar, even if she paid cash.
By default, Exxon Mobil has the right to share her name and other information it collects on her with "consumer reporting agencies, banks, insurance companies, retailers, publishers and direct marketers" unless Bernard "opts out." But she has never done so.
Such information is often buried in the privacy polices sent in the mail or posted on retail Web sites that Bernard never bothers to read.
- 10:25 a.m.
She logs on to Top Producer, Web-based software for real estate agents that allows Bernard to retrieve notes on her clients wherever she has access to the Internet. She can look up clients' birthdays and home-buying anniversaries.
The trend toward Web-based computing means that reams of data Bernard and others used to keep in notebooks are now stored on servers owned by private companies, where the data is potentially vulnerable to hackers and potentially accessible to government authorities.
- 11:05 a.m.
She dials Domino's for pizza.
Domino's tracks her name, phone number, address, and size and type of pizza ordered. Unless a store decides otherwise, the data are held forever. That way, Domino's can provide more personalized service.
Domino's says it does not share or sell customer information. But companies that specialize in providing unlisted and cellphone numbers often purchase phone numbers from pizza delivery services, according to Merlin Information Services, a data broker.
- 12:30 p.m.
Bernard gets back in her car, a 2003 Mercedes-Benz with navigation and roadside emergency service. She turns the key in the ignition, activating a Global Positioning System (GPS) device that uses satellites to pinpoint her location and is constantly sending out signals.
GPS technology allows her to map out a route and find streets and landmarks, restaurants and hotels.
GPS can generate a record of her travels, though ATX says it does not keep such location records now.
- 2:10 p.m.
Bernard enters Costco. She uses her Costco membership card, linked to an American Express card, to buy items.
She likes the credit voucher she will get at year's end, worth 1 percent of her total purchases, thanks to her Costco membership.
Costco likes its database of 50 million shoppers' purchase histories, e-mail addresses and phone numbers, which it can use to notify consumers of a product recall or do marketing research. Bernard's credit card companies know her income and her shopping habits. They can share her information with affiliates without her permission and need not stop even if she asks them to.
- 5:20 p.m.
Back in her office, Bernard does a Google search on a coffee maker because she can't remember the model's exact name.
She types in "coffee makers" and gets a link to Amazon.com. Google collects billions of search queries a month typed in by users such as Bernard, creating one of the largest databases of online behavioral data in the world. Google uses this data on an aggregate level for research purposes, such as refining its search engine, or to see how many people are clicking on ads so that Google can bill the advertisers. Google targets ads to users based on the search terms they use and can target ads by geography.
- 6:45 p.m.
Bernard and her husband enter the mall. Security cameras record their passage.
- 9:00 p.m.
Bernard and Emert return from dinner and shopping, using an RFID key fob to enter the building. A camera again records them.
- 9:05 p.m.
She logs on to her laptop again, seeing only a few e-mails. After watching a little TV with her husband, she'll head to bed around 11.
The Washington Post