Tuesday, January 10, 2006

The Transparent Society

I'm reading more stories about the war being waged between privacy advocates and technology.

Some of these fights are the same fights that have been waged before - the controversy over the Bush administration tapping U.S. citizen's communications without a warrant is a repeat of the abuses fought in the 1970's.

But some of these fights are new. And what's interesting is the changing attitudes toward a certain acceptibility, even inevitability, of the loss of prior privacies.

The Rise of the Machines

It's true that technology continues to advance the means that can be used to gather information on individuals that previously would have been impractical or impossible, from cameras to mouse clicks. And this is increasing to the point where there may be some fundamental shifts in what is considered private.

A recent article in Wired covered various technologies in trial phases that provide lie detectors based upon the state of your brain patterns. You use different parts of your brain when thinking up a lie than you do remembering the answer to a question. Visibility into the brain itself may finally provide definitive answers to a person's veracity, just as DNA testing has provided definitive answers to paternity and presence at a scene.

(One of these technologies can even work at a distance, using infrared frequencies that penetrate the skull into the cerebral cortex layer of the brain. A subject may not even realize that an active, accurate lie detector is monitoring their every word.)

Other technologies include

  • cheap web cams that can run all the time, anywhere

  • cell phones that allow pictures and movies to be taken anytime, anywhere

  • genetic analysis of predisposition toward disease (or even predisposition toward violence and pathological behavior!).

  • database warehouses, web cookies, clickstreams allow collection of buying habits and preferences

  • RFID technology, credit cards, and loyalty cards that will allows the same level of tracking of all physical goods interaction in the "real" world

  • GPS technology that can combine with the above to track the whereabouts of anyone or anything at any time.

But there is a group who isn't worried about this increasingly monitored world.

Our Children.

The Goldfish Bowl

Kids these days are growing up with these technologies, and seem to have little to no expectation of privacy. In fact, an increasing majority of kids volutarily give up private information about themselves, their friends, and their lives using personal web sites (myspace, facebook, teenspot), podcasts, and videos posted to the web. Moblogs allow real time updates of activities and events for anyone to see.

And it makes me wonder about a future where everything is literally open to view by anyone. Is this necessarily a bad thing?

What if all activities - those of government officials, politicians, neighbors, yours - were available to peruse by anyone at any time? Privacy nightmare? Or would it be one of the most lawful, tolerant societies yet developed by man?

At first, you're probably thinking about all the things that you do that you really would be embarrassed to have other people see or know about. But guess what - all those other people have similar strange habit that they would find embarrassing.

With constant and ready availability to look at anyone doing anything at any time, in short order people may become inured to the peccadillos and foibles of others. It is certainly working this way with exposure to violence and sex in the media. Most people find blase a level of graphic violence and pornography that a generation ago would have caused granny to faint dead away.

Think about criminals, killers, and cops. No one could be above the law or beyond the law.

Think about government officials. They'd finally have one half of their dream, which is to look in and spy on anyone at any time. The other half, though, is every politicians nightmare - the truth, exposed for all to see. Deception, hypocracy, and double dealing would be readily exposed to those who cared - heck, we're already seeing some beginnings of this in the blogosphere, were bloggers fact check and expose those who cross the line.

Could this open information environment be abused? There is that possibility. The branches of our government could each declare themselves off-limits to the freedom of information (just as they already try to do today). But the environment for information freedom has a technology momentum of its own, whether we want it to or not. We could choose not to allow officials this power to escape observation. Escape from scrutiny would be difficult - gaps in coverage would be obvious, and questions about what happened in those gaps can be pursued.

Does government require secrecy in order to perform its function? (How would the military plan operations against enemies who can see what they're planning? How can spies meet with their handlers when anyone can see who they are?) Interesting discussion to have.

And it's one we should have sooner than later, because the train has left the station.

Edward Teller, whose conservative politics were slightly to the right of Attila the Hun, said this -
The best weapon of a dictatorship is secrecy; the best weapon of a democracy is openness.
Thomas Jefferson once wrote
Whenever you do a thing, though it can never be known but to yourself, ask yourself how you would act were all the world looking at you, and act accordingly.


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