The Box That’s Formed by Being Watched

Writing in the Atlantic, Bruce Schneier suggests that we’re rapidly approaching a time when the fear of “a government-issued ID will seem quaint.”  With all of the digital technologies that we’re weaving into our lives — from radio frequency identification (RFID) chips in our clothes to credit card purchases — we’re putting our lives on digital display.  In the not-too-distant future:

When you walk into a store, they’ll already know who you are. When you interact with a policeman, she’ll already have your personal information displayed on her Internet-enabled glasses.

For the moment, those databases of our activities are in the silos of separate organizations.  But since the records have value, they’re being sold, and Schneier points to various mechanisms by which the government is allowing itself to be the buyer (or taker). Schneier doesn’t even address the results when ObamaCare fully enters the scene (bringing the IRS along with it).

More important, perhaps, is the lack of concern that this roundabout way to “a surveillance state beyond the dreams of Orwell” engenders.  A national ID doesn’t seem to have much practical use other than those of the government; the government’s putting a two-way TV set in your home would be frightening.  But if it’s put there for convenience (to save power by turning off when you’re not in the room, to adjust a list of favorite channels depending on who’s watching, whatever), it’s not so obviously malicious.

It’s for your benefit, after all.

That increasingly seems to be the attitude of younger generations, as they become acclimated to interacting on the traceable Internet, and as companies claim more and more liberties.  Why does a simple smart phone video game need access to your phone’s call log?  Who cares?  It’s fun.  Writes Schneier:

Data on this scale has all sorts of applications. From finding tax cheaters by comparing data brokers’ estimates of income and net worth with what’s reported on tax returns, to compiling a list of gun owners from Web browsing habits, instant messaging conversations, and locations — did you have your iPhone turned on when you visited a gun store? — the possibilities are endless.

The drive for fleeting online fame notwithstanding, people seem to find it inconceivable that anybody would really care to manipulate their lives or spy on them.  So what if the store clerk knows your purchase history to a penny; she’ll only be more helpful.  If the police officer knows instantly that you’ve never broken any laws, then he’ll let you walk on buy.  You’re not going to cheat on your taxes.  You don’t have any interest in guns.

But think of the box that this starts to create.  Beyond creepy, careful strategies to manipulate and push you to particular decisions (voting for a particular candidate for public office for example), there’s the possibility that something an individual does will make a convenient excuse as a target for somebody with power.  How confident are you that nothing in any of the digital files on your behavior is either illegal or potentially scandalous?

So, you’ll never make an offensive video about Islam.  So, you’ll never do anything that would do much more than make you blush if your mother found out.  So, you’ll never do anything that would draw the eye of people powerful enough to put you in that situation, anyway.  You’ll never join a Tea Party group (or be Jewish).

Of course, the limbs on which one best not go too far out can be difficult to distinguish.  Doing anything beyond cog-hammering requires some risk.  Whether your particular innovation is artistic, mechanical, or has something to do with a business model, doing new things tends to be disruptive to people whose power derives from doing old things.

The list of activities and behaviors that this sort of society removes from Western culture grows and grows.  Privacy.  Liberty.  Freedom.  Innovation.  Creativity.

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