Artificial noses that sniff explosives, cameras that I.D. you by your ears, chips that analyze the halo of heat you emit. More scrutiny lies ahead.
That's the heading on this week's cover story in BusinessWeek, "The State Of Surveillance."
Tomorrow's surveillance technology may be considerably more effective. But each uptick in protection will typically come at the cost of more intrusion into the privacy of ordinary people. For now, the public seems to find that trade-off acceptable, so scientists around the world have intensified efforts to perfect the art of surveillance, hoping to catch villains before they strike.
Research laboratories envision tools that could identify and track just about every person, anywhere -- and sound alarms when the systems encounter hazardous objects or chemical compounds. Many such ideas seem to leap from the pages of science fiction: An artificial nose in doorways and corridors sniffs out faint traces of explosives on someone's hair. Tiny sensors floating in reservoirs detect a deadly microbe and radio a warning. Smart cameras ID people at a distance by the way they walk or the shape of their ears. And a little chemical lab analyzes the sweat, body odor, and skin flakes in the human thermal plume -- the halo of heat that surrounds each person.
Is privacy a right we should claim when we're out in public? I may not want video cameras or sniffing sensors tracking me in my home, but if I go into a government building, a company's offices, or even a public park, isn't such scrutiny legitimate? (Of course, advanced nanotechnology may soon enable round-the-clock total surveillance of every citizen, which is where the risk of abusive policies and practices becomes more acute.)
The article continues:
Together these developments herald a high-tech surveillance society that not even George Orwell could have imagined -- one in which virtually every advance brings benefits as well as intrusions. Rapid DNA-based probes, for example, could help protect us from bioweapons and diagnose diseases, but they might also reveal far too much about us to health insurers or prospective employers. The trade-offs are uncomfortable, in part, because corporations and governments will continue to wield the most advanced surveillance systems. But ordinary citizens will also gain capabilities to monitor their surroundings with consumer technologies, from Web cams to Net search and tracking tools, allowing the watched to observe other watchers.
Here we get a mention of "watching the watchers," along the lines of the Participatory Panopticon envisioned by Jamais Cascio of WorldChanging.
Then, after reviewing a long list of developing surveillance technologies, the BusinessWeek article ends on surprising rhetorical note:
Over time, people may get smarter about how to live with threats and make use of technology without undermining their most basic values. They must. A country that sacrifices its citizens' freedom in the fight to protect them is no victor.
Protection vs. privacy: that is the tradeoff suggested here. But is it a false dichotomy? The author of this article seems to be making the mistake of equating privacy with freedom, and they are not the same thing.
As we have discussed before, if the intent is to achieve security and freedom -- not privacy -- then a tradeoff may not be required.
Author, scholar, and transparency advocate David Brin says, "The widely held belief in a tradeoff between security and freedom" is not only a faulty assumption, but also "dismal and loathsome." He 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.
Surveillance, privacy, security, freedom, protection, oppression: these arguments will not go away. As technology continues racing ahead, the need for agreement and understanding about these issues becomes ever more urgent.