"This much we do know: a combination of political, cultural, and economic factors are transforming our world into a place where people, transactions, and things can be observed, monitored, and recorded almost everywhere, and almost all the time. Within the next several years, we'll be awash in powerful, cheap sensors: radio-frequency ID (RFID) tags that track objects (and the people who happen to be wearing, riding, or chatting into them); biometric sensors that will identify us by our unique irises, fingerprints, voices, walking patterns, or other physical quirks; Global Positioning System receivers, embedded into all manner of things, able to track us to within a meter; and tiny, high-resolution digital still and video cameras, also built into everything, from cellphones to wallpaper.And I agree that David Brin does a good job, if a little dry, on presenting the issues in The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?, but I think it is the inevitability of the loss of privacy that defines our future.
The resulting torrent of data will cascade into government and corporate data systems, as well as that system of systems, the Internet. Facts and information that are largely incoherent but overwhelming in volume and detail will accumulate in databases too scattered and numerous -and valuable- to be shut off completely from the rest of cyberspace.
Without a doubt, though, we'll try to do just that. In fact, we've already started. Researchers, mostly in academia, are now working on various privacy-enhancing technologies [see 'Sensors & Sensibility' elsewhere in this issue]. But champions of a transparent society, where the light of accountability would shine upon all of us, contend that over the longer term these privacy enhancers will be like sandbag walls against that relentlessly rising tide of data. They'll keep little areas 'dry' for a while, and give some of us a measure of comfort, but will fail to shield us in any absolute, permanent, or globally effective way. Without a doubt, though, we'll try to do just that. In fact, we've already started. Researchers, mostly in academia, are now working on various privacy-enhancing technologies [see "Sensors & Sensibility" elsewhere in this issue]. But champions of a transparent society, where the light of accountability would shine upon all of us, contend that over the longer term these privacy enhancers will be like sandbag walls against that relentlessly rising tide of data. They'll keep little areas "dry" for a while, and give some of us a measure of comfort, but will fail to shield us in any absolute, permanent, or globally effective way. We must embrace the technologies of surveillance, these advocates contend, and in doing so, ensure that we can point the electronic eye right back at the people and institutions who watch us.
This viewpointarticulated most comprehensively by science fiction novelist David Brin in his 1998 treatise, The Transparent Societyruns contrary to the opinions many of us hold about privacy. At the other end of the privacy spectrum, activist groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Privacy Information Center seem to see ominous portents in every new sensor advance and federal initiative. Each side is grappling with the continuing evolution in seeing and knowing that has been remaking society for centuries."
IT WILL NOT BE EASY to create a truly transparent society. For most of us, being more accountable, and holding others to account, will be a challenge. But the benefits might well outweigh the costs, as in this scenario, circa 2010:Yes, but think of the social re-adjustments that will be required to varying extents in all cultures. What is the actual rate of incest in our country, and which families are involved? Who has used illegal drugs in the past? Does monogamy rise as the ability to have clandestine affairs fades away? Or do we adjust to some other arrangement? Who beats their children? Who is cruel to animals? All will potentially be known, but certainly knowable.
Passing you on the street, I swipe my RFID reader to obtain your name and address. Googling you on a few public databases, including one of new homeowners in the neighborhood, I discover that you're in the market for a used lawn mower. Your bank account is in order, and your credit is fantastic, even after you paid off your ex-wife's debt as part of your recent divorce settlement. You had a quadruple bypass last year and need a riding mower just like the one sitting in my garage. Your spy tracker alerts you to the fact that I'm checking you out, prompting you to launch your own investigation. You learn I suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder and am taking medication to keep my life together. But you also know that my disorder manifests as a cleaning fetish; it's a good bet that the lawn mower I listed on eBay is in pristine shape. Furthermore, you can infer that I'm so desperate to make my credit card payments this month that I'll sell you that mower for a song.
Ideas and attitudes about personal privacy differ from culture to culture, era to era. Is it such a stretch to believe that the developed world's collective attitude toward privacy is evolving to a point where we're no longer concerned with who's watching us or what they know about us, as long as our lives are safer and more convenient? After all, we live in a time when we automatically remove our shoes so airport screeners can check for explosives; when we are videotaped every time we conduct an ATM transaction or walk into a store or office building; and when we are tracked every time our computer accepts a cookie from a Web site we've visited.
For entertainment, we gather in front of the tube for mass-mediated group therapy sessions called reality shows. Hundreds of millions of us around the globe tune in to watch people who eagerly endure excruciating plastic surgery; stab each other in the back for a chance to work for Donald Trump; or wolf down sea worms, cockroaches, and worse to survive on a desert island. For Generation Y, "Big Brother" is a reality television show, where, for a chance at winning half a million dollars, contestants volunteer to be cooped up in a house with total strangers and have their most private moments broadcast to a hungry audience.