Privacy and security are on a collision course. Your desire to be kept safe will soon collide with your wish to be left alone.
This warning is often heard. But is it true?
ITEM: A new generation of software developed for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is intended to "unravel the complex web of relationships between people, places, and events," by tracking and analyzing "emails, Web pages, financial transactions, and other documents." Under the U.S. "Patriot Act," federal agencies participating in terrorism prevention can monitor computer networks, wiretap phones, and scour public records and private financial transactions.
ITEM: A network of 1,000 cameras, 4,000 vehicles, twelve patrol boats, nine helicopters, four mobile command centers, and a blimp were put in force as security at the 2004 Olympics in Greece.
ITEM: In England, four million government cameras keep constant watch over public places, making Brits the most photographed people in the world.
A "police state characterised by omniscient surveillance and mechanical law enforcement," is what we may be headed for, cautions Charlie Stross.
It all sounds ominous, if not downright oppressive. However, some pundits envision using the same technology to turn tables on the watchers.
Soon -- probably within the next decade, certainly within the next two -- we'll be living in a world where what we see, what we hear, what we experience will be recorded wherever we go. There will be few statements or scenes that will go unnoticed, or unremembered. Our day to day lives will be archived and saved. What’s more, these archives will be available over the net for recollection, analysis, even sharing.
And we will be doing it to ourselves.
This won't simply be a world of a single, governmental Big Brother watching over your shoulder, nor will it be a world of a handful of corporate siblings training their ever-vigilant security cameras and tags on you. Such monitoring may well exist, probably will, in fact, but it will be overwhelmed by the millions of cameras and recorders in the hands of millions of Little Brothers and Little Sisters. We will carry with us the tools of our own transparency, and many, perhaps most, will do so willingly, even happily.
That's Jamais Cascio of WorldChanging, describing what he calls the "Participatory Panopticon."
...constant surveillance is done by the citizens themselves, and is done by choice. It's not imposed on us by a malevolent bureaucracy or faceless corporations. The participatory panopticon will be the emergent result of myriad independent rational decisions, a bottom-up version of the constantly watched society.
It may have started already.
Millions of people carrying camera cell phones or portable instant messaging devices are being encouraged to share what they see, hear, and think as it happens -- and by Google, no less. Think about that: the owners of the world's largest data storage and retrieval system are gathering audio, video, photos, and text messages from all over. Should we be pleased? Or worried?
We began by saying that privacy and security are on a collision course. Plenty of evidence supports that assertion. However, according to transparency advocate David Brin, "the widely held belief in a tradeoff between security and freedom" is not only a faulty assumption, but also "dismal and loathsome."
Brin claims it is not true that "there is a basic, zero-sum tradeoff between safety and freedom," or that "we can only augment one by diminishing the other." On the contrary, he points to "the value -- and empowerment -- of common citizens in an age of danger."
Rather than diminishing the role of the individual, advances in technology seem to be rapidly empowering average citizens, even as professional cynics forecast freedom's demise.
Brin's basic message seems to be that we are not required to choose between freedom and security; that, in fact, history shows us that the most open or "transparent" societies -- those with the least emphasis on secrecy and control -- also are the safest.
Whether you agree or disagree, this is an important discussion to have. We live in a time of extremely rapid, accelerating change. Understanding the implications of our new technological abilities, as well as regulations that might be proposed to manage them, is critical.