TechMan Texts: Who's watching?

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The surveillance society is here: Revelations of NSA's digital tracking of communications has got people thinking about the many ways in which they are being surveilled.

Two instances of physical tracking surfaced recently.

The New York Times reported that some retailers are tracking customers to observe their behavior in the store "using video surveillance and signals from their cell phones (GPS) and apps to learn information as varied as their sex, how many minutes they spend in the candy aisle and how long they look at merchandise before buying it."

Meanwhile the American Civil Liberties Union revealed that the number of license plates being recorded by cameras has reached millions. Based on information from hundreds of law enforcement agencies, the ACLU said police departments keep the records for weeks or years -- sometimes indefinitely -- saying they can be crucial in tracking suspicious cars, aiding drug busts, finding abducted children and more.

Attached to police cars, bridges or buildings -- and sometimes merely as an app on an officer's smartphone -- scanners capture images and upload location information into police databases.

At there is an interactive map where you can see how individual police departments responded to Freedom of Information Act requests for information on license plate tracking.

My, what a big drive you have: NSA-type information gathering is being made possible in part by advances in the capacity of digital storage devices. Two recent developments:

Solid State Drives (SSDs, think USB sticks) have always been favored because of speed of retrieval and lack of mechanical parts. But they have been limited by capacity.

That is rapidly changing. Samsung will offer in August a 1 terabyte (TB) SSD drive. Price has not been announced.

But mechanical hard drives have not gone away and have been getting more capacious and cheaper. Seagate plans to ship 6 TB mechanical hard drives by the second half of 2014. Six TB is 6,000 GB. That's a lot of storage.

Set our Googles free: The Electronic Frontier Foundation (, sort of the ACLU of the digital world, has joined 50 technology companies and other organizations in demanding that online services be allowed to report for the first time complete information about the government's requests for user data. They want freedom to make public the number of requests the provider has received; the number of users or accounts affected; and the number of times the provider contested the request.

They must have a huge lawn: The huge new NSA center for processing and storing the mountains of information collected, set to open in Utah in September, will use 1.7 million gallons of water each day.

Website of the week: Shameless self-promotion alert: The Post-Gazette has produced an outstanding interactive presentation about Pittsburgh's bridges across the Allegheny. Check it out at

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