The Technology of Exposure

Does Privacy Require Anonymity?

More and more transactions are requiring picture identification documents.  An airline ticket used to be a negotiable bearer document–if you had it, you could use it, or you could give it to somebody else, or sell it.  Now it must be purchased by the person who intends to use it.  If s/he turns out not to be able to use it, s/he must turn it in for a refund, which the airline may or may not choose to provide.

This seems to be the wave of the future for intercity railroad and bus tickets as well.  Even paying in cash does not free the would-be traveler of this obligation.  (However, city and metropolitan public transportation tickets can still be purchased anonymously for cash.)

Driving a car, of course, requires a driver’s license.  Now, increasingly, buying a car does too.  And that car can be tracked by various street-corner videos and tollway security cameras, though so far not with any easy way to confirm who is actually driving.

Merely walking in and out of public buildings or on public streets and sidewalks can involve getting your picture taken, in still or video, with varying degrees of readability.  Using an ATM will almost certainly get your picture taken, but since you have to use a personally keyed card in such a transaction anyway, it matters only if you are not the person properly attached to the card.

Banks are now required, under various federal statutes against “money-laundering,” to report cash transactions involving $10,000.00 or more. And a person who carefully breaks down such transactions into three transactions of $3333 apiece can be prosecuted for evading such statutes.  Carrying large sums of cash can be a ground for suspicion of all kinds of offenses.  Your credit card, of course, enables any government agency to track your purchases by date, time, and place.

ID of some sort is usually required to rent a post office box.  If you make a phone call, the person on the other end will probably be able to ascertain who you are from a “caller I.D.” facility.

The only countervailing forces are new technologies which enable you to purchase a cell phone or a credit card and put money into its account in cash over the counter.  Never having done this, I have no idea what kind of I.D. is required for the transaction.  Nor am I willing to hazard a guess about how long law enforcement will take to require production of a picture ID for such transactions.

The purpose of all of these new strictures is to make us safer from money-laundering, drugs, and terrorism.  Have they made us any safer?  They haven’t been around long enough to tell.  My personal guess is that the larger quantity of information now available on the comings, goings, and financial transactions of each of us cuts both ways.  More can be known about us, but most of the agencies capable of accessing that knowledge lack the resources to read and use that knowledge effectively.  And the more information there is, the harder it is for the appropriate agencies to use it.  We found that out before September 11, 2001.  It turned out we already had lots of information on most of the hijackers.  But we were so badly backlogged in reading it that we didn’t know what we had until weeks or months later, when it was long since too late.  (One of the techies commenting on this problem in the months immediately after 9/11 pointed out, “You don’t get any better at finding needles in haystacks by adding more hay.”)

My guess is that, no matter how much information we gather on the lives of our ordinary citizens and residents, we will prioritize it for review based on what we think we already know about its subjects.  So we will continue to suspect “the usual suspects,” and let the moles and sleepers go their way because they are smart enough not to look like the usual suspects.

Does that mean that these new strictures do not impinge on our freedom?  Alas, no.  Certainly they impinge on the freedom of “the usual suspects,” about whom more can be known, and more limits placed on their lives, than ever before.   What this probably does is enable governmental and corporate authorities to protect their own power from dissidents and activists, and people with darker skins and flatter wallets than their own. Which may drive some of the usual suspects into the ranks of the terrorists, but will certainly not make us any safer from the real Bad Guys.

It’s scary to know how much information about us there is out there.  It is both more and less scary to know how much of that information is inaccurate.  For instance, I regularly get spam in my e-mail based on the assumption that I am a single Christian male with bad credit, erectile dysfunction, and a dog.  All but one of those assumptions is dead wrong.  My husband somehow got onto the mailing list of a psychic hot line that spells his name wrong!  He also regularly gets mail from the Hispanic Bar Association, despite the fact that he is neither Hispanic nor an attorney.  (Obviously all this stuff was meant for me, since I’m both, but this tells you a lot about organizational sexism in the Hispanic community.) We both get lots of attempts at contact from people who sell aluminum siding and other goods and services appropriate only for the owners of single-family detached houses, even though for 40-plus years we have lived in a multi-family building.

And those of us who read and write speculative fiction, as well as the political loonies at both ends of the spectrum, may also worry that, if governmental and corporate power is seized by the Bad Guys (or is already in their possession, depending which conspiracy theory you buy) we and the other Good Guys are already in their gunsights and no longer have any way to protect ourselves by “silence, exile, and cunning.”

On the other hand….

I do not share the idea of the self-proclaimed guardians of our privacy, such as the ACLU, that caller ID infringes the privacy of the caller.  When you make a phone call, you don’t have any privacy.  You are stepping outside of the zone of your privacy. You have no more right to conceal your phone number from the person you call than to knock on his door while wearing a mask.

Similarly, I believe that video cameras in public places do not violate the privacy of the people who frequent those places.  IF YOU WANT PRIVACY, STAY HOME!  In the public realm, your face is visible to all. All a camera does is make that visibility more durable in time. (No, I won’t get into recent burqah litigation, thank you.)

I am also not opposed to the idea of a universal ID.  On the contrary, I think we would be better off having it.  Places of public accommodation would no longer be able to discriminate against those they do not wish to serve, by claiming that their ID isn’t “good enough.”  We would know exactly which ID is good enough.  I think a universal ID would be a lot better than our current use of the driver’s license for that purpose.  People who are too old, too young, too disabled, or too poor to drive would no longer be reduced to second-class citizenship.  And the driver’s license could be returned to its original purpose of ensuring that people who drive are competent to do so, regardless of their immigration status.

That takes care of the present, and the technologies now available to pierce the veil of anonymity.  What about technologies that now exist but are not yet in wide use? For instance, what about medical information chips?  We already have them for our pets.  Cats, dogs, and horses get “chipped” for identification and to insure proper and prompt treatment for medical problems.  So far, only upscale animal owners bother with this, because it’s expensive.  But the price will come down fairly quickly, and at that point we may start to wonder why sauce for the cat cannot also be sauce for the cat’s person.  Are the chips a violation of privacy?  Do they improve our chances of getting the right emergency care when we are in no shape to demand it?  In theory, the answer to both questions is yes.  In fact, I suspect that medical chips will get used the way Medic-Alert tags get used now–when and as it’s convenient for emergency responders.  Most of us know of people who wear Medic-Alert bracelets, who have been picked up by paramedics who don’t bother to read the bracelets (sometimes with disastrous results.)  No technology is any better than the people who use it.  But what is absolutely certain is that the chips will be used first, not by medical professionals, but by insurance companies.  The insurers will devise some way to make sure that the people they insure get “chipped” with a complete record of all diagnoses and treatments, in order to avoid insuring anybody whose medical past they don’t like.  This will, of course, provide the patient with less medical care, not more.

In the meantime, we all carry “smart cards,” such as credit/debit cards, bus passes, and library cards.  Most of those, at least theoretically, enable Them to track Our movements anywhere within reach of a card reader, which is most towns, cities, and businesses.  Should I leave my smart cards home?

And what about the technologies we can imagine, or are even in the process of implementing, for the future?  That really is the realm of speculative fiction, and the gee-whiz crime investigation TV shows that recklessly tread the border between what we can already do and what we can imagine doing (or could do if our governmental agencies had the money.) We could use public video to identify every person who crosses a particular intersection, or all intersections.  We could run that information through real-time information processing that would set off an alarm every time a camera sights a person wanted for a crime, and direct the police to his current location to arrest him.  Because we generally prefer paying for gadgetry to paying for the people who use it, we probably will never have enough cops to actually respond to every such alarm.  Or the resources in the criminal justice system to prosecute and lock up all the offenders caught this way.  So we will concentrate on information emanating from the places we consider most important, either because of their proximity to the people and places we are willing to take the trouble to protect, or because of their likelihood of turning up large numbers of the usual suspects with minimal effort.

In short, if we merely use advanced technologies to do more, faster, of what we are already doing now, we will merely get more of what we are getting now, faster.  Only if we would be satisfied with that as a goal should we bother pursuing it.  Or, as Mr. Wired explained early in the days of the computer, what we learn from computer technology is that it is possible to get a reputation for being extremely smart simply by doing one or two stupid things very quickly and very often.

Red Emma

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