Surveillance 2: Eye for an eye

The advertising industry goes to bed with data-mining gadgets

A personal fact here and another one there can add up to big business. A handful of aggressive marketing companies have turned these raw facts and figures into solid gold. They use so-called data-mining software to combine data from public and private databases into incredibly detailed -- and highly profitable -- lists.

KnowledgeBase Marketing, a division of ad giant Young & Rubicam, claims to have an enormous database containing detailed profiles of more than 200 million Americans -- including the date of birth on 72 percent of those people and income information drawn from five sources.

Some types of information are harder to get than others, though. Medical records for Americans are protected by new federal regulations. Unfortunately, however, these regulations contain broad loopholes that give government health agencies unrestricted access if they can rationalise that it is necessary for "public health, research or law enforcement purposes".

And get ready for the next wave of information to start appearing in databases: biometric identification (unique physical traits, such as fingerprints or the iris patterns of your eyes). The FBI's Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System went online in mid-1999 with the technical capacity to search through a database containing 40 million full sets of fingerprints.

An increasing number of banks and financial institutions now collect thumbprints from non-customers. Bank United in Texas is the first American financial institution to install automated teller machines that use iris recognition to identify customers.

However, on the horizon is some even scarier stuff -- such as mandatory DNA collection. The federal government and all 50 US states now catalogue DNA from convicted felons, and the FBI's Combined DNA Index System is growing rapidly.

It's simple to store a DNA record of a newborn child, but don't rush to enter your kids' records in that database. Unlike fingerprints, DNA information can be used for much more than identification. It can predict genetic diseases, and some researchers believe it can also identify predispositions toward alcoholism and other behaviours. Are you sure you want that information added to your profile?

Take me to the Surveillance 2 ZDNet News special.

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