Thursday, October 11, 2007


"Transparent Century" refers to the inexorable penetration of surveillance technologies into our society, and their (sometimes unexpected) impact. Sensor technologies, especially camera sensors, have become so cheap that they are ubiquitous, and the trends suggest that they will continue to decrease in cost and become even more ubiquitous. The knee-jerk reaction to this observation is that we're headed for an Orwellian nightmare where our every move is scrutinized. This blog is intended to explore the idea that pervasive surveillance may not be a uniformly bad thing, depending on how the technology is adopted.

A central premise is that the debate should not center on whether surveillance technlogies should be ubiquitous, but how ubiquitous surveillance technologies should be used. To
, this may seem like giving up. But the alternatives are to fight technology adoption or try to limit the scope of its usage. Fighting technology adoption requires a Luddite attitude that seems anachronistic for the 21st Century; layering additional technologies onto the technology of concern (be it RFID, biometrics or something else) adds cost. If the costs of the additional technology outweigh the benefits, it becomes difficult to distinguish between the technology-layering approach and the Luddite approach. Finally, at its core the central premise is pragmatic: We’ve already voluntarily given up huge amounts of privacy, and the sky hasn’t fallen in. What is needed is for parties other than ordinary citizens to lose more of their privacy.

Have we really given up so much privacy? Yes. Consider for a moment that whenever we buy gas, enter a bank, gamble at a casino, withdraw money from an ATM, or go shopping, we are subjected to surveillance by the business we are buying from. For the most part, a consensus has developed that this surveillance is benign. Legitimate customers recognize that businesses use surveillance to frustrate activities that they do not wish to subsidize (drive-aways, bank theft, cheating at gambling, larceny), so they are willing to tolerate surveillance by the business. Furthermore, if there were a market opportunity for businesses that did not employ surveillance in this way - the "gas station that doesn't spy on its customers" or "Wal-Mart with no surveillance" - some business would have exploited it by now. That hasn't happened.

But camera technologies are only one of many that are used to monitor our activities. Modern technology enables us to be monitored in ways that go far beyond anything George Orwell could have imagined. Computer storage densities are so high that it doesn't make sense for companies to discard data anymore. Every credit card transaction records not only the dollar amount but the location, time, and class of product being purchased; this information is potentially recorded by the vendor as well as the credit card company. Every search typed into a search engine can be stored, along with the IP address of the computer that originated the search query. RFID-based EZPass technology can be used to monitor people's vehicles' whereabouts whenever they pass through a suitably enabled toll gate. Traffic control cameras enable drivers to receive tickets for behavior that was not directly observed by a police officer. European cities have installed surveillance cameras in public spaces, to facilitate investigation of crime. Provided there is a consensus that these technologies are used benignly, it seems reasonable to expect that they will be deployed more and more broadly as costs continue to decline.

Such government-arbitrated surveillance seems to arouse more concern than the data-gathering done by companies. This concern is well-founded, given well-documented abuses of surveillance powers by the government. Whether it was J. Edgar Hoover having the FBI investigate political enemies or IRS employees inappropriately looking up the tax records of relatives or celebrities, American citizens have been concerned about government meddling in their private affairs since the Fourth Amendment was drafted. Yet since 9/11, we have been asked to give up even more privacy: the Bush Administration has pioneered novel spying tactics ("warrantless wiretapping"), justifying them with novel legal theories. Additionally, and disturbingly, the government has issued subpoenas to companies to compel them to share proprietary company data (such as search engine data), ostensibly for counterterrorism purposes.

While questions about these policies are debated by the Congress and considered by the courts, we citizens are left with a world where pervasive surveillance is the norm and it looks like it will stay that way. Companies and the government spy on us, and expect us to tolerate it. What can we do about it? One option: spy back. This sounds silly until you consider that the process has already begun. Another option: demand reciprocal transparency, not only from the companies we do business with, but from our representatives in government.

No promises about this essay remaining exactly as is - this is an evolving topic - I have started to write a book on it about six times but things are evolving too fast to cover in that format. (This is why Thomas Friedman has had to revise The World Is Flat three times in three years.) Hence the blog.

I'll pull the trigger for now and post more material in future blog entries: a Transparent Century reading list w/book reviews, commentary on YouTube, a lexicon, policy proposals.

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