How do they track thee? Counting the ways ...

A day in the life of a typical citizen: A myriad of technologies that track and record actions into various databases searchable by government and industry.
Written by Richard Koman, Contributor

Kitty Bernard is an ordinary citizen, a middle-aged real estate agent who uses the Web, email and a variety of digital devices as she goes about her business and personal life. The Washington Post chronicles a day in Bernard's life to show the many ways in which citizens are constantly tracked in their digital lives.

Not surprisingly, many of those tracks lead to government data collection and observation.

This explosion in data collection has been embraced by many Americans as a trade-off for convenience and discounts. But it also has raised questions about personal privacy at a time when the government is increasingly tapping into these reservoirs of telling details to fight crime and terrorism.


6:15 a.m.: Bernard, who is married and has a grandson, pads into the lobby of her Reston 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.

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, and marketers are contemplating using it for targeted cellphone advertising pitches by text message.

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, lending a personal touch to her service.

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.

12:35 p.m. Bernard pulls up to a tollbooth on the Dulles Toll Road. A Smart Tag on her front license plate communicates with a sensor and pays her toll. A light flashes green.

Over the long run, Bernard has saved hours by using her Smart Tag, with its RFID chip, to zip through tollbooths. The Virginia Department of Transportation records the date and time she passed, the toll location, the amount paid and her customer account information. The FBI has used this type of information to help solve murder cases, and private attorneys have used it in divorce cases.

As she passes, two cameras record her -- one in front of her car and one in back.


4:15 p.m. She enters Belmont Country Club, a planned community in Loudoun County, to show a client a house. Two cameras record her car entering. Residents can tune their TV sets to the security channel and see who's at the gate. Bernard inserts an electronic key, which looks like a pager, into a black rectangular lockbox, and a real key drops out.

The e-key uses an infrared beam to transmit the date and time, her name and phone number, and her company name to the lockbox. The lockbox, itself an electronic device, beams to the e-key a number linked to the house address.

The information is kept by GE Security, which puts it on a Web site for real estate professionals who want to check the last three months of activity. The firm also stores the data for years just in case an agent needs it to, for instance, help settle a civil dispute.

The Post's Ellen Nakashima notes that no one forces people like Bernard to participate in her own tracking. She does it because it's convenient, saves times, makes her feel safer.

Who's to say what's intrusive at a time when teenagers are baring their souls on Web sites? When people are taking video of routine and shocking events alike and putting them on the Web? When patients' health records are being scanned into giant databases? Much of these data -- voice, video, text -- are not being analyzed, at least not on a systematic basis. But the government is seeking ways to effectively do so, for law enforcement and security.

Putting herself under the microscope of a day with a reporter has allowed Bernard to see just how her life is being tracked. Does she want to now throw out all her electronic tracking devices? Hardly.

She said she's not inclined to change her ways. Bernard said she already takes measures to guard her privacy. She saves intimate details for phone calls. She's on a do-not-call telemarketing list. She trusts her company to keep her office system hacker-free. For the most part, she trusts that the government will not be interested in her personal life -- hoping for security through obscurity.

"I have no tickets. I obey the law," she said. "I would trust them to look at me and see I'm a businessperson. I'm a family person."

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