Governments and businesses went on a computer buying spree in the second half of the twentieth century, replacing billions of paper files with electronic data processing systems. Today, humans often are completely absent from digital decision making. As a result, we've created a world in which the smallest clerical errors can have devastating effects on a person's life. It's a world where computers are assumed to be correct, and people wrong.
Fingerprints, iris scans, and genetic sequences are widely regarded as infallible techniques for identifying human beings. They're so good, in fact, that 50 years from now, identification cards and passports probably won't exist. Instead, a global data network will allow anyone on the planet to be instantly identified from the unique markings of that person's own body. Who controls access to the databank, who has the power to change its contents, and what do we do if the infallible system is nevertheless wrong?
We are entering a new world in which every purchase we make, every place we travel, every word we say, and everything we read is routinely recorded and made available for later analysis. But while the technology exists to capture this data, we lack the wisdom to figure out how to treat it fairly and justly. The result is an unprecedented amount of data surveillance, the effects of which we're just beginning to grasp.
Orwell thought the ultimate threat to privacy would be the bugging of bedrooms and offices. Today, an equally large threat to freedom is the systematic monitoring of public places through microphones, video cameras, surveillance satellites, and other remote sensing devices, combined with information processing technology. Soon it may be impossible for most people to escape the watchful outdoor eye.
Traditionally, medical records have been society's most tightly held personal records. The obligation to maintain patient confidentiality is widely regarded as a fundamental responsibility of medical professionals. But patient confidentiality is at odds with the business of health insurance—a business that would rather turn away the sick than cure them.
Junk mail, junk faxes, junk email, and telemarketing calls during dinner are only the beginning of the twenty-first century's runaway marketing campaigns. Marketers increasingly will use personal information to create solicitations that are continual and virtually indistinguishable from news articles, personal letters, and other kinds of noncommercial communications.
Personal identification information—your name, your profession, your hobbies, and the other bits that make up your self—is being turned into a valuable property right. But instead of being given to individuals to help them exert control over their lives, this right is being seized by big business to ensure continued profits and market share. If you don't even own your own name, how can you have a sense of self-worth?
Breakthrough advances in genetics make it possible to predict disease, behavior, intelligence, and many other human traits. Whether or not these predictions are correct, they will change how people are perceived and treated. Will it be possible to treat people fairly and equally if there is irrefutable scientific evidence that people have different strengths, different weaknesses, and different susceptibilities to disease? If not, how is it possible to maintain a democratic society when this information is easily available?
Businesses are becoming increasingly vigilant in detecting the misuse of their own intellectual property. But piracy is hard to prevent when technology can turn every consumer into an electronic publisher. To prevent info-theft, publishers are turning to increasingly intrusive techniques for spying on their customers. Once this technology is in place, it is unlikely that it will be restricted to antipiracy protection.
Astonishingly lethal technologies are now widely available throughout society. How can society reasonably protect itself from random acts of terrorism without putting everyone under surveillance? How can society protect itself from systematic abuses by law enforcement officials, even when those abuses seem to be in the public interest?
The ultimate threat to privacy will be intelligent computers—machines that can use human-like reasoning powers, combined with blinding calculating speed, to assemble coherent data portraits, interpret and anticipate our mental states, and betray us with false relationships.
This is a broad collection of issues, but it's no less broad than the future itself. This book's purpose is to show the privacy implications of many ongoing technological developments, and to show good cause for abandoning today's laissez-faire approach to privacy protection. Once you have a good vision of the technological future we're shaping, you'll be better equipped to mold it.
Although this book is subtitled The Death of Privacy in the Twenty-First Century, it is designed to bring about a different end. Nearly 40 years ago, Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring helped seed the U.S. environmental movement. And to our credit, the silent spring that Carson foretold never came to be. Silent Spring was successful because it helped people to understand the insidious damage that pesticides were wreaking on the Earth's environment, and it helped our society and our planet plot a course to a better future.
This book, likewise, seeks to show the plethora of ways that technology is killing one of our most cherished freedoms. Whether you call this freedom the right to digital self-determination, the right to informational autonomy, or simply the right to privacy, the shape of our future will be determined in large part by how we understand, and ultimately how we control or regulate, the threats to this freedom that we face today.