Marolt: Read my license plates, read my mind | AspenTimes.com
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Marolt: Read my license plates, read my mind

Roger Marolt
Roger This

They say that there is no such thing as privacy in a small town, and they are, once again, correct. We were walking through the mall the other day, and I said “hi” as we passed a person I see all the time but don’t know who they are. I asked my companions. Before we got to the water fountain at Mill and Hyman, I knew not only this person’s name but where they worked, where they were from, where their house is, how many kids they have, every family member’s age, hobbies, how many days they skied last winter, brief medical histories and a few indiscretions that nobody but close friends presumably knew about. Digesting this information is what we mean when we say “building community.”

It makes you wonder what people know about you. I don’t feel like I have much to hide, but there’s a lot of stuff about me I don’t want to share, either. You don’t have to be guilty of something to value privacy.

I think there are two broad categories of people who can’t deal with the daily small-town chitchat: city folks and Idahoans. The larger group make themselves anonymous in crowds and the other by “getting off the grid.” It’s not that these people are different from the rest of us who frequently drive down Main Street; they just spend more time on the Internet and brag on Twitter. If you think about it, 15 minutes of fame just doesn’t happen by itself anymore.

Anyway, like it or not, the world is becoming a much smaller place to live in. By some estimates, the entire world today is about the same effective size as Athens was in 1300 B.C. The litmus test is fresh fish. You can get it just as quickly anywhere in the world today as you could get it anywhere in Athens then.

Yeah, I know — it’s an absurd comparison. I think the entire world today feels more like about the size of Basalt in 1964.

The credit-card company called the other day and said it had canceled our cards and would be FedExing new ones to us the next morning. Somebody had bought a new television set in Detroit, and they knew it wasn’t us. I confirmed that it wasn’t, in fact, us but asked how they could have been so sure so quickly. The guy told me they had a pretty comprehensive spending profile for us and this purchase didn’t fit the pattern. A computer kicked it out. In other words, they’d been watching us like a big brother. They know more about what’s inside my house than I do. Heck, they could pick out a restaurant I’d like and order for me. They could plan my next vacation. They probably know what kind of shoes I like and what size fits me best.

Not ironically, this happened virtually on the eve of the gush of information about license-plate tracking going on in this country following the American Civil Liberties Union report that shot the topic through the broadband. This technology is not just for traffic cops anymore. There are at least two private companies keeping constant track of the whereabouts of cars and, presumably, their drivers. It’s every stalker’s dream.

A study published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in March concluded that a person can be positively identified with only four points of mobility with an accuracy rate of 95 percent. What could somebody do if they tracked your geographic position 10 times a day for a week? My guess is that they could tell if you had holes in your underwear.

It is reported that a company called TLO out of Boca Raton, Fla., has accumulated a database of more than 1 billion mobility records. It records the movement of tens of millions of cars every month. Scanning cameras are mounted on everything from tow trucks to toll booths and every mall security vehicle between. Many of the cameras produce such high resolution that faces can be recognized. Can you imagine a national database of faces? Of course you can. They call it Facebook!

While we are clearly smart enough to create the technology, we are proven not to be smart enough to keep it under control. What do I think of this? There is no need to wonder. If they happen to scan this column and cross-check it with images of me taken with cameras mounted along the Droste Trail right here in Aspen, they’ll be able to read my mind. They won’t see my face in the pictures, but they’ll know it’s me by the holes in my underwear down around my knees.

Roger Marolt writes this column from a secret location every week, but somebody already knows that. Contact him at roger@maroltllp.com.


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