Just Because They Aren’t Out to Get you…Doesn’t Mean They Won’t

Technological inevitability is easily mistaken for governmental conspiracy. I keep hearing that the government spies on us. Its purposes are said to be dreadfully nefarious, usually the establishment of a dictatorship. Our privacy disappears. The Feds probably have a vast listening post in Roswell, New Mexico, where the Air Force stores dead Martians. One night, FBI agents in black helicopters will fly through our windows and plant chips in our heads. The government is out to get us.

Regarding which, a few thoughts (which come through the chip planted in my head.)

Actually the government isn’t out to get us. And that’s the problem. You can fight back against a conspiracy. How do you argue against catching people who run red lights? Or against convenience?

For example, the police don’t want a national data base of photos from driver’s licenses, or favor a national ID card, because they want to oppress people. They want these things because they want to catch criminals. The federal agencies of law enforcement and of national security don’t want to monitor the Internet for totalitarian purposes. They want to prevent terrorism and impede the traffic in drugs.

Technology that serves these good purposes just happens to be technology that would serve totalitarian purposes.

Herein lies the rub: A conspiracy can be opposed. It is harder to oppose a myriad of data bases, each of which is in fact intended for good purposes. It is even harder when the direction of technological advance makes control virtually impossible. The technology of surveillance, or more correctly technology that can be used for surveillance, advances at a breakneck pace. We can’t stop it.

And the government will, I promise, use it. Not to enthrone a Hitler, but to constrict gradually, in the name of every imaginable good cause, the times and places in which we will not be watched. This won’t be the intention. It will be the effect.

Consider the innocent manner in which privacy diminishes:

Cameras at intersections in my county are now used to photograph automatically the license plates of those who run red lights. There’s no conspiracy here. People complained of light-runners. The police didn’t have enough officers to watch intersections. Someone suggested using cameras.

Today, only automobiles that run lights are photographed. Today, an officer presumably has to look at the pictures on a screen and write down the numbers. However, it would be just as easy to photograph all licenses. Software exists which, adapted to the purpose, could read the numbers and record them. (Think of common OCR software used in offices.) The justification would be one of legitimate law-enforcement, that the police could enter the tags of stolen cars or wanted criminals. It would indeed serve this purpose.

The same system would also allow the government, should it choose, to keep records of who drove where, day or night, month after month. Computers are easily powerful enough.

Today, only a few intersections have these cameras. They will grow in number. It would be easy to install at stop signs little gadgets, mini-Doppler radars or what have you, to cause a light to flash if you ran the stop sign. Or a camera to photograph your license and email you a warning. Optoelectronic companies, with no ulterior motives at all, are developing cameras the size of a postage stamp.

Technology gets used.

The Internet is a grave, but apparently innocuous, threat to privacy. Email in many circumstances can be easily, automatically, and undetectably monitored–by the government, by smart teenagers, by commercial enterprises. Tracking your tastes in Internet pornography is real easy. The papers recently carried stories of a company that sells software for listening to music on your computer. It seems that the software, without notification to the user, emailed to the company information, some of it read from the computer’s hard drive, on the user’s listening preferences.

Among what are called hackers, the secret installation of software to allow reading of files is old news. You can bet the mortgage that the intelligence agencies are very, very good at this stuff. In principle they target the computers of Saddam Hussein and suchlike. Your computer is just as vulnerable, and you would never know that it had happened.

Who if anyone is being watched by whom for what reasons, I don’t know. I know with certainty that it is easily possible.

A crucial point is that the accretion of data bases and networks is not going to stop. It’s too easy, too useful, too convenient, too justifiable. Visa and Mastercard know the time and place of every purchase you make, including the memorable evening at that no-tell motel. Banks keep endless financial records, and the government uses them to watch for money laundering and tax evasion. Tracking your cell phone will likely be possible soon: Ambulance crews like the idea because people in auto wrecks often don’t know exactly where they are. Everything can be networked, linked, searched. And will be.

Without ill intention.

Would a warrant be needed to, say, electronically track your goings and comings in your automobile? Who knows? (And how would you know whether you were being tracked?) One may argue that there is no expectation of privacy in driving on the public streets. Certainly a cop can stand on the corner and read your tags as you drive by. But when the rising efficiency of computers allows what was done sporadically in particular places to be done constantly everywhere, a fundamentally new situation arises. A little more of the same is more of the same. A lot more of the same is something different.

Knowing that everything you’ve ever done, every thing you do, may be watched will inevitably intimidate. Think how a normal conversation changes when someone picks up an extension phone. We all have skeletons in the back closets of our lives. There’s no conspiracy, but there doesn’t have to be.

We’re moving fast into a world nobody has lived in before, and we need to learn how to do it.

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