Spying Technology Creates a HIPAA Nightmare

John Commins, May 2, 2011

National Public Radio calls it a "driveway moment." It's when one of their stories is so engrossing that the listener sits in his car, in his driveway, waiting for it to finish before he goes to the house at the end of the work day commute.

The network's Marketplace program provided such a moment last week with a story on "Little Brother," and the new, powerful, ingenious, and inexpensive snooping gadgets that are available to just about anyone interested in violating your privacy.

Here are some of the frightening new snooping technologies mentioned in the piece:

  • Abrowser plug-in named "Firesheep" that allows snoops to monitor anyone using the wireless networks in their immediate area. The plug-in will display the name and show pictures of other surfers nearby – perhaps someone using Facebook -- and allow the snoop to log-in as that person. According to Marketplace, a hacker could post photos, send messages, pretty much do whatever he wants, all in someone else's name. Firesheep has been downloaded more than 1.3 million times, and its creator told NPR he did it to show how vulnerable we all are.
  • That same programmer, Eric Butler, told Marketplace he is developing a smartphone app that will let users read trip data off strangers' transit cards – right through their wallets! (Emphasis mine!)
  • A company called Flexispy allows its customers to surreptitiously load its software onto the phones of their frenemies, acquaintances, or family members. Then starts the spying by listening in on conversations or tracking people via GPS. 
  • For about $1,200 you can buy what Marketplace described as "your own malicious cell phone tower," which will allow you to monitor voice transmissions, texting, even data.
  • Facial recognition programs for cell phones and other devices are becoming more sophisticated and affordable, as are tiny aerial drones with cameras attached.
John Commins

John Commins is a senior editor at HealthLeaders Media.

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