Watch out when you're walking or driving in public, using your credit card or perhaps buying fast food - a video camera, computer or audio recorder may be keeping track of what you do.
Modern surveillance and computer technology may not be George Orwell's all-seeing Big Brother, but they are creating conflicts between Americans' desire for safety and for privacy, lawyers at the American Bar Association's annual meeting say."We live in a world in which technology makes us safer in some ways . . . and makes us more exposed," George Washington University law professor Stephen Saltzburg said Saturday. But he said the danger is that "every single device that we create will fall into the wrong hands and be used against us."
Businesses have used video cameras for years to record criminals in the act; now the cameras are being used on some city streets to catch people who run red lights.
Some stores might use listening devices to track their employees' performance, but they also may wind up recording customers' personal conversations.
Camera surveillance in public places is perfectly legal, said Washington, D.C., lawyer James Falk Sr., who chairs a Justice Department panel on the use of technology for public safety.
"What happens in public places does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy," Falk said, predicting that closed-circuit television cameras in high-crime areas will become more common.
His son, James Falk Jr., said some employers use television cameras in the workplace to monitor employees' work and prevent theft.
"It has value without being intrusive," the younger Falk said. But he added that what is reasonable monitoring in general work areas would not be reasonable in locker room or restrooms.
"I want to thank George Orwell for having the depth and foresight to plan my career," jested Richard Chace of the Security Industry Association, a trade group that promotes closed-circuit television security systems.
But even though use of such cameras in public is legal, Chace cautioned that communities should consider whether they need or want it.
"It is about understanding what is the appropriate use of technology," he said.
The biggest threat to Americans' privacy is the huge computer data-bases that keep track of credit card transactions, medical records and other information about people's private lives, said George B. Trubow, a professor at John Marshall Law School in Chicago.
"That system remembers what you're doing even when you can't even remember it yourself," Trubow said. "If Orwell could focus on the database personal information I imagine he would be spinning in his grave like a top."
The White House on Friday announced a series of new steps to protect Americans' privacy and threatened new federal laws to cover companies that use high-tech databases to build elaborate profiles on customers. Vice President Al Gore warned that if those companies don't protect the information adequately, the administration would consider "other means," such as new laws.
The Federal Trade Commission previously has urged Congress to consider tough new laws if the database industry doesn't develop sufficient privacy guidelines by year's end.
And the FTC's end-of-the-year deadline may even be too late. Tough new privacy rules by the European Union governing the collection and exchange of personal data about European citizens go into effect Oct. 25. The laws will affect American companies doing business internationally.
At the lawyers' convention, Don Haines, until recently a privacy expert for the American Civil Liberties Union, warned of new technologies and those yet to come.
A new device that detects human electromagnetic radiation would allow police to know someone was carrying a gun without frisking them. For that matter, Haines said, it also would disclose whether someone was wearing a medical device such as a colostomy bag.
As technology changes, Haines said might could be argued that people's reasonable expectation of privacy will diminish.
Saltzburg cautioned, "We should never forget that the people called upon to handle the technologies are just like us."
"They will err . . . they will snoop," Saltzburg said.