The WORLD'S SHREWDEST PRIVACY NEWSLETTER
Ten centuries ago, at the previous millennium, a Viking lord
commanded the rising tide to retreat. No deluded fool,
King Canute aimed in this way to teach flatterers a
lesson -- that even sovereign rulers cannot halt inexorable
A thousand years later, we face tides of technology-driven
transformation that seem bound only to accelerate. Waves of
innovation may liberate human civilization, or disrupt it, more than
anything since glass lenses and movable type. Critical decisions
during the next few years -- about research, investment, law and
lifestyle -- may determine what kind of civilization our children
inherit. Especially problematic are many information-related
technologies that loom on the near horizon -- technologies that may
foster tyranny, or else empower citizenship in a true global
Typically we are told, often and passionately, that Big Brother may
abuse these new powers. Or else our privacy and rights will be
violated by some other group. Perhaps a commercial, aristocratic,
bureaucratic, intellectual, foreign, criminal or technological
elite. (Pick your favorite bogeyman.)
Because one or more of these centers of power might use the new
tools to see better, we're told that we should all be very afraid.
Indeed, our only hope may be to squelch or fiercely control the
onslaught of change. For the sake of safety and liberty, we are
offered one prescription: We must limit the power of others to see.
Half a century ago, amid an era of despair, George Orwell created
one of the most oppressive metaphors in literature with the
telescreen system used to surveil and control the people in his
novel "1984." We have been raised to a high degree of sensitivity
by Orwell's self-preventing prophecy, and others like it. Attuned
to wariness, today's activists preach that any growth in the state's
ability to see will take us down a path of no return, toward the
endless hell of Big Brother.
But consider. The worst aspect of Orwell's telescreen -- the trait
guaranteeing tyranny -- was not that agents of the state could use
it to see. The one thing that despots truly need is to avoid
accountability. In "1984," this is achieved by keeping the
telescreen aimed in just one direction! By preventing the people
from looking back.
While a flood of new discoveries may seem daunting, they should not
undermine the core values of a calm and knowledgeable citizenry.
Quite the opposite: While privacy may have to be redefined, the new
technologies of surveillance should and will be the primary
countervailing force against tyranny.
In any event, none of those who denounce the new technologies have
shown how it will be possible to stop this rising tide.
Consider a few examples:
Radio frequency identification ( RFID ) technology will soon replace
the simple, passive bar codes on packaged goods, substituting
inexpensive chips that respond to microwave interrogation, making
every box of toothpaste or razor blades part of a vast, automatic
inventory accounting system. Wal-Mart announced in 2003 that it
will require its top 100 suppliers to use RFID on all large cartons,
for purposes of warehouse inventory keeping. But that is only the
beginning. Inevitably as prices fall, RFID chips will be
incorporated into most products and packaging.
Supermarket checkout will become a breeze, when you simply push your
cart past a scanner and grab a printout receipt, with every purchase
automatically debited from your account.
Does that sound simultaneously creepy and useful? Well, it goes
much further. Under development are smart washers that will read
the tags on clothing and adjust their cycles accordingly, and smart
medicine cabinets that track tagged prescriptions, in order to warn
which ones have expired or need refilling. Cars and desks and
computers will adjust to your preferred settings as you approach.
Paramedics may download your health status -- including allergies
and dangerous drug-conflicts -- even if you are unconscious or
unable to speak.
There's a downside. A wonderful 1960s paranoia satire, "The
President's Analyst," offered prophetic warning against implanted
devices, inserted into people, that would allow them to be tracked
by big business and government. But who needs implantation when
your clothing and innocuous possessions will carry cheap tags of
their own that can be associated with their owners? Already some
schools -- especially in Asia -- are experimenting with RFID systems
that will locate all students, at all times.
Oh, there will be fun to be had, for a while, in fooling these
systems with minor acts of irreverent rebellion. Picture kids
swapping clothes and possessions, furtively, in order to leave
muddled trails. Still, such measures will not accomplish much over
extended periods. Tracking on vast scales, national and worldwide,
will emerge in rapid order. And if we try to stop it with
legislation, the chief effect will only be to drive the surveillance
into secret networks that are just as pervasive. Only they will
operate at levels we cannot supervise, study, discuss or understand
Wait, there's more. For example, a new Internet protocol (IPv6)
will vastly expand available address space in the virtual world.
The present IP, offering 32-bit data labels, can now offer every
living human a unique online address, limiting direct access to
something like 10 billion Web pages or specific computers. In
contrast, IPv6 will use 128 bits. This will allow the virtual
tagging of every cubic centimeter of the earth's surface, from sea
level to mountaintop, spreading a multidimensional data overlay
across the planet. Every tagged or manmade object may participate,
from your wristwatch to a nearby lamppost, vending machine or trash
can -- even most of the discarded contents of the trash can.
Every interest group will find some kind of opportunity in this new
world. Want to protect forests? Each and every tree on earth might
have a chip fired into its bark from the air, alerting a network if
furtive loggers start transporting stolen hardwoods. Or the same
method could track whoever steals your morning paper. Not long
after this, teens and children will purchase rolls of ultra-cheap
digital eyes and casually stick them onto walls. Millions of those
"penny cams" will join in the fun, contributing to the vast IPv6
Oh, this new Internet protocol will offer many benefits -- for
example, embedded systems for data tracking and verification. In
the short term, expanded powers of vision may embolden tyrants. But
over the long run, these systems could help to empower citizens and
enhance mutual trust.
In the mid-'90s, when I began writing "The Transparent Society," it
seemed dismaying to note that Great Britain had almost 150,000 CCD
police cameras scanning public streets. Today, they number in the
In the United States, a similar proliferation, though just as rapid,
has been somewhat masked by a different national tradition -- that
of dispersed ownership. As pointed out by UC-San Diego researcher
Mohan Trivedi, American constabularies have few cameras of their
own. Instead, they rely on vast numbers of security monitors
operated by small and large companies, banks, markets and private
individuals, who scan ever larger swaths of urban landscape. Nearly
all of the footage that helped solve the Oklahoma City bombing and
the D.C. sniper episode -- as well as documenting the events of
9/11 -- came from unofficial sources.
This unique system can be both effective and inexpensive for state
agencies, especially when the public is inclined to cooperate, as in
searches for missing children. Still, there are many irksome
drawbacks to officials who may want more pervasive and direct
surveillance. For one thing, the present method relies upon high
levels of mutual trust and goodwill between authorities and the
owners of those cameras -- whether they be convenience-store
corporations or videocam-equipped private citizens. Moreover, while
many crimes are solved with help from private cameras, more police
are also held accountable for well-documented lapses in professional
This tattletale trend began with the infamous beating of Rodney
King, more than a decade ago, and has continued at an accelerating
pace. Among recently exposed events were those that aroused disgust
(the tormenting of live birds in the Pilgrim's Pride slaughterhouse)
and shook America's stature in the world (the prisoner abuse by
jailers at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq). Each time the lesson is the
same one: that professionals should attend to their professionalism,
or else the citizens and consumers who pay their wages will find out
and -- eventually -- hold them accountable.
(Those wishing to promote the trend might look into Project Witness
which supplies cameras to underdogs around the world.)
Will American authorities decide to abandon this quaint social
bargain of shared access to sensors under dispersed ownership? As
the price of electronic gear plummets, it will become easy and cheap
for our professional protectors to purchase their own dedicated
systems of surveillance, like those already operating in Britain,
Singapore and elsewhere. Systems that "look down from above"
(surveillance) without any irksome public involvement.
Or might authorities simply use our networks without asking? A
decade ago, the U.S. government fought activist groups such as the
Electronic Frontier Foundation, claiming a need to unlock
commercial-level encryption codes at will, for the sake of law
enforcement and national defense. Both sides won apparent
victories. High-level commercial encryption became widely
available. And the government came to realize that it doesn't
matter. It never did.
Shall I go on?
Driven partly by security demands, a multitude of biometric
technologies will identify individuals by scanning physical
attributes, from fingerprints, iris patterns, faces and voices to
brainwaves and possibly unique chemical signatures. Starting with
those now entering and leaving the United States, whole classes of
people will grow accustomed to routine identification in this way.
Indeed, citizens may start to demand more extensive use of biometric
identification, as a safety measure against identity theft. When
your car recognizes your face, and all the stores can verify your
fingerprint, what need will you have for keys or a credit card?
Naturally, this is yet another trend that has put privacy activists
in a lather. They worry -- with some justification -- about civil
liberties implications when the police or FBI might scan multitudes
(say, at a sporting event) in search of fugitives or suspects.
Automatic software agents will recognize individuals who pass
through one camera view, then perform a smooth handoff to the next
camera, and the next, planting a "tail" on dozens, hundreds, or tens
of thousands of people at a time.
And yes, without a doubt this method could become a potent tool for
some future Big Brother.
So? Should that legitimate and plausible fear be addressed by
reflexively blaming technology and seeking ways to restrict its use?
Or by finding ways that technology may work for us, instead of
Suppose you could ban or limit a particular identification
technique. (Mind you, I've seen no evidence that it can be done.)
The sheer number of different, overlapping biometric approaches will
make that whole approach fruitless. In fact, human beings fizz and
froth with unique traits that can be spotted at a glance, even with
our old-fashioned senses. Our ancestors relied on this fact,
building and correlating lists of people who merited trust or worry,
from among the few thousands that they met in person. In a global
village of 10 billion souls, machines will do the same thing for us
by prosthetically amplifying vision and augmenting memory.
With so many identification methodologies working independently and
in parallel, our children may find the word "anonymous" impossibly
quaint, perhaps even incomprehensible. But that needn't mean an end
to freedom -- or even privacy. Although it will undoubtedly mean a
redefinition of what we think privacy means.
But onward with our scan of panopticonic technologies. Beyond RFID,
IPv6 and biometrics there are smart cards, smart highways, smart
airports, smart automobiles, smart televisions, smart homes and so
The shared adjective may be premature. These systems will provide
improved service long before anything like actual "artificial
intelligence" comes online. Yet machinery needn't be strictly
intelligent in order to transform our lives. Moreover, distributed
"smart" units will also gather information, joining together in
cross-correlating networks that recognize travelers, perform
security checks, negotiate micro-transactions, detect criminal
activity, warn of potential danger and anticipate desires. When
these parts fully interlink, the emerging entity may not be
self-aware, but it will certainly know the whereabouts of its myriad
Location awareness will pervade the electronic world, thanks to ever
more sophisticated radio transceivers, GPS chips, and
government-backed emergency location initiatives like Enhanced-911
in the United States and Enhanced-112 in Europe. Cellphones,
computers and cars will report position and unique identity in real
time, with (or possibly without) owner consent. Lives will be
saved, property recovered, and missing children found. But these
benefits aren't the real reason that location awareness and
reporting will spread to nearly every device. As described by
science fiction author Vernor Vinge, it is going to happen because
the capability will cost next to nothing as an integrated part of
wireless technology. In the future, you can assume that almost any
electronic device will be trackable, though citizens still have time
to debate who may do the tracking.
The flood of information has to go someplace. Already databases
fill with information about private individuals, from tax and
medical records to credit ratings; from travel habits and retail
purchases to which movies they recently downloaded on their TiVo
personal video recorder. Yahoo's HotJobs recently began selling
"self" background checks, offering job seekers a chance to vet their
own personal, financial and legal data -- the same information that
companies might use to judge them. (True, a dating service that
already screens for felons, recently expanded its partnership with
database provider Rapsheets to review public records and verify a
user's single status.) Data aggregators like Acxiom Corp., of
Arkansas, or ChoicePoint, of Georgia, go even further, listing your
car loans, outstanding liens and judgments, any professional or
pilot or gun licenses, credit checks, and real estate you might own
-- all of it gathered from legal and open sources.
On the plus side, you'll be able to find and counter those rumors
and slanderous untruths that can slash from the dark. The ability
of others to harm you with lies may decline drastically. On the
other hand, it will be simple for almost anybody using these methods
to appraise the background of anyone else, including all sorts of
unpleasant things that are inconveniently true. In other words, the
rest of us will be able to do what elites (define them as you wish,
from government to aristocrats to criminal masterminds) already can.
Some perceive this trend as ultimately empowering, while others see
it as inherently oppressive. For example, activist groups from the
ACLU to the Electronic Privacy Information Center call for
European-style legislation aiming to seal the data behind perfect
firewalls into separate, isolated clusters that cannot cross-link or
overlap. And in the short term, such efforts may prove beneficial.
New database filters may help users find information they
legitimately need while protecting personal privacy ... for a
while, buying us time to innovate for the long term.
But we mustn't fool ourselves. No firewall, program or machine has
ever been perfect, or perfectly implemented by fallible human
beings. Whether the law officially allows it or not, can any effort
by mere mortals prevent data from leaking? (And just one brief leak
can spill a giant database into public knowledge, forever.)
Cross-correlation will swiftly draw conclusions that are far more
significant than the mere sum of the parts, adding up to a
profoundly detailed picture of every citizen, down to details of
Here's a related tidbit from the Washington Post: Minnesota
entrepreneur Larry Colson has developed WebVoter, a program that
lets Republican activists in the state report their neighbors'
political views into a central database that the Bush-Cheney
campaign can use to send them targeted campaign literature. The
Bush campaign has a similar program on its Web site. And here's
Colson's response to anyone who feels a privacy qualm or two about
this program: "[It's] not as if we're asking for Social Security
number and make and model and serial number of car. We're asking
for party preference ... Party preference is not something that is
such a personal piece of data."
That statement may be somewhat true in today's America. We tend to
shrug over each other's harmless or opinionated eccentricities. But
can that trait last very long when powerful groups scrutinize us,
without being scrutinized back? In the long run, tolerance depends
on the ability of any tolerated minority to enforce its right to be
left alone. This is achieved assertively, not by hiding. And
assertiveness is empowered by knowledge.
The picture so far may seem daunting enough. Only now add a flood
of new sensors. We have already seen the swift and inexpensive
transformation of mere cellphones into a much more general,
portable, electronic tool by adding the capabilities of a digital
camera, audio recorder and PDA. But have we fully grasped the
implications, when any well-equipped pedestrian might swiftly
transform into an ad hoc photojournalist -- or peeping Tom --
depending on opportunity or inclination?
On the near horizon are wearable multimedia devices, with displays
that blend into your sunglasses, along with computational,
data-storage and communications capabilities woven into the very
clothes you wear. The term "augmented reality" will apply when
these tools overlay your subjective view of the world with digitally
supplied facts, directions or commentary. You will expect -- and
rely on -- rapid answers to queries about any person or object in
sight. In essence, this will be no different than querying your
neuron-based memories about people in the village where you grew up.
Only we had a million years to get used to tracking reputations that
way. The new prosthetics that expand memory will prove awkward at
Today we worry about drivers who use cellphones at the wheel.
Tomorrow will it be distracted pedestrians, muttering to no one as
they walk? Will we grunt and babble while strolling along, like
village idiots of yore?
Maybe not. Having detected nerve signals near the larynx that are
preparatory to forming words, scientists at NASA Ames Research
Center lately proposed subvocal speech systems -- like those
forecast in my 1989 novel "Earth" -- that will accept commands
without audible sounds. They would be potentially useful in
spacesuits, noisy environments and to reduce the inevitable babble
when we are all linked by wireless all the time.
Taking this trend in more general terms, volition sensing may pick
up an even wider variety of cues, empowering you to converse, give
commands, or participate in faraway events without speaking aloud or
showing superficial signs.
Is this the pre-dawn of tech-mediated telepathy? It may be closer
than you think. Advertising agencies are already funding research
groups that usePET scans and fMRI to study the immediate reactions
of test subjects to marketing techniques and images. "We are
crossing the chasm" said Adam Koval, chief operating officer of
Thought Sciences, a division of Bright House, an Atlanta advertising
and consulting firm whose clients include Home Depot, Delta Airlines
and Coca-Cola, "and bringing a new paradigm in analytic rigor to the
world of marketing and advertising." Those who decry such studies
face a tough burden, since all of the test subjects are paid
volunteers. But how about when these methods leave the laboratory
and hit the street? It is eerie to imagine a future when sensitive
devices might scan your very thoughts when you pass by. Clearly
there must be limits, only how? Will you be better able to protect
yourself if these technologies are banned (and thus driven
underground) or regulated, with a free market that might offer us
all pocket detectors, to catch scanners in the act?
Microsoft recently unveiled Sensecam, a camera disguisable as
jewelry that automatically records scores of images per hour from
the wearer's point of view, digitally documenting an ongoing daily
photo-diary. Such "Boswell machinery" may go far beyond egomania.
For example, what good will your wallet do to a mugger when images
of the crime are automatically broadcast across the Web? Soon,
cyber-witnessing of public events, business deals, crimes and
accidents will be routine. In movie parlance, you will have to
assume that everybody you meet is carrying a "wire."
Meanwhile, you can be sure that military technologies will continue
spinning off civilian versions, as happened with infrared night
vision. Take "sniffers" designed to warn of environmental or
chemical dangers on the battlefield. Soon, cheap and plentiful
sensors will find their way into neighborhood storm drains, onto
lampposts, or even your home faucet, giving rapid warnings of local
pollution. Neighborhood or activist groups that create detector
networks will have autonomous access to data rivaling that of local
governments. Of course, a better-informed citizenry is sure to be
...and far more noisy.
The same spinoff effect has emerged from military development of
inexpensive UAV battlefield reconnaissance drones. Some of the
"toys" offered by Draganfly Innovations can cruise independently for
more than an hour along a GPS-guided path, transmit 2.4 GHz digital
video, then return automatically to the hobbyist owner. In other
companies and laboratories, the aim is toward miniaturization,
developing micro-flyers that can assist an infantry squad in an
urban skirmish or carry eavesdropping equipment into the lair of a
suspected terrorist. Again, civilian models are already starting to
emerge. There may already be some in your neighborhood.
Cheap, innumerable eyes in the sky. One might envision dozens of
potentially harmful uses ... hundreds of beneficial ones ... and
millions of others in between ranging from irksome to innocuous ...
all leading toward a fundamental change in the way each of us
relates to the horizon that so cruelly constrained the imagination
of our ancestors. Just as baby boomers grew accustomed to viewing
faraway places through the magical -- though professionally mediated
-- channel of network television, so the next generation will simply
assume that there is always another independent way to glimpse
real-time events, either far away or just above the streets where
Should we push for yet another unenforceable law to guard our
backyards against peeping Toms and their drone planes? Or perhaps
we'd be better off simply insisting that the companies that make the
little robot spies give us the means to trace them back to their
nosy pilots. In other words, looking back may be a more effective
way to protect privacy.
One might aim for reciprocal transparency using new technology.For
example, Swiss researcher Marc Langheinrich's personal digital
assistant application detects nearby sensors and then lists what
kind of information they're collecting. At a more radical and
polemical level, there is the sousveillance movement, led by
University of Toronto professor Steve Mann. Playing off
"surveillance" (overlooking from above), Mann's coined term suggests
that we should all get in the habit of looking from below, proving
that we are sovereign and alert citizens down here, not helpless
sheep. Mann contends that private individuals will be empowered to
do this by new senses, dramatically augmented by wearable electronic
We have skimmed over a wide range of new technologies, from RFID
chips and stick-on penny cameras to new Internet address protocols
and numerous means of biometric identification. From database
mining and aggregation to sensors that detect chemical pollution or
the volition to speak or act before your muscles get a chance to
move. From omni-surveillance to universal localization. From eyes
in the sky to those that may invade your personal space.
Note a common theme. Every device or function that's been described
here serves to enhance some human sensory capability, from sight and
hearing to memory. And while some may fret and fume, there is no
historical precedent for a civilization refusing such prosthetics
when they become available.
Such trends cannot be boiled down to a simple matter of good news or
bad. While technologies of distributed vision may soon empower
common folk in dramatic ways, giving a boost to participatory
democracy by highly informed citizens, you will not hear that side
of the message from most pundits, who habitually portray the very
same technologies in a darker light, predicting that machines are
about to destroy privacy, undermine values and ultimately enslave
In fact, the next century will be much too demanding for fixed
perspectives. (Or rigid us-vs.-them ideologies.) Agility will be
far more useful, plus a little healthy contrariness.
When in the company of reflexive pessimists -- or knee-jerk
optimists -- the wise among us will be those saying ... "Yes,
Which way will the pendulum of good and bad news finally swing?
We are frequently told that there is a fundamental choice to be made
in a tragic trade-off between safety and freedom. While agents of
the state, like former Attorney General John Ashcroft, demand new
powers of surveillance -- purportedly the better to protect us --
champions of civil liberties such as the ACLU warn against surrendering
traditional constraints upon what the government is allowed to see.
For example, they decry provisions of the PATRIOT Act that open
broader channels of inspection, detection, search and data
collection, predicting that such steps take us on the road toward
While they are right to fear such an outcome, they could not be more
wrong about the specifics. As I discuss in greater detail
elsewhere, the very idea of a trade-off between security and freedom
is one of the most insidious and dismal notions I have ever heard --
a perfect example of a devil's dichotomy. We modern citizens are
living proof that people can and should have both. Freedom and
safety, in fact, work together, not in opposition. Furthermore, I
refuse to let anybody tell me that I must choose between liberty for
my children and their safety! I refuse, and so should you.
As we've seen throughout this article, and a myriad other possible
examples, there is no way that we will ever succeed in limiting the
power of the elites to see and know. If our freedom depends on
blinding the mighty, then we haven't a prayer.
Fortunately, that isn't what really matters after all. Moreover,
John Ashcroft clearly knows it. By far the most worrisome and
dangerous parts of the PATRIOT Act are those that remove the tools
of supervision, allowing agents of the state to act secretly,
without checks or accountability. (Ironically, these are the very
portions that the ACLU and other groups have most neglected.)
In comparison, a few controversial alterations of procedure for
search warrants are pretty minor. After all, appropriate levels of
surveillance may shift as society and technology experience changes
in a new century. (The Founders never heard of a wiretap, for
But our need to watch the watchers will only grow.
It is a monopoly of vision that we need to fear above all else. So
long as most of the eyes are owned by the citizens themselves, there
will remain a chance for us to keep arguing knowledgeably among
ourselves, debating and bickering, as sovereign, educated citizens
It will not be a convenient or anonymous world. Privacy may have to
be redefined much closer to home. There will be a lot of noise.
But we will not drown under a rising tide of overwhelming
technology. Keeping our heads, we will remain free to guide our
ships across these rising waters -- to choose a destiny of our own
Thanks goes to David Brin for the above article.
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