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The end of privacy

July 8, 2013

DJI Phantom

Imagine being able to pull up on your phone or pad a high-resolution display of any part of your city in real-time, all the infrastructure and buildings, the cars, bicyclists and people as they travel, infrastructure work as it is done, who is dining in particular restaurants, what is happening at city hall. That’s not distant future fantasy. It’s just Google street-view on steroids. The proliferation of cameras everywhere and continued advance of large data make it an easy extrapolation from current technology. It will be done not because Big Brother commands it, but because we the people will want it and use it, and Google or other large corporation will find marketing advantage to providing it.

What might cause some hesitation is the thought of what this means for privacy. Add memory of this real-time data, some face-recognition and gait-recognition software, and anyone — anyone! — will be able to answer the question: “What were Bill Painter’s movements for the week from January 16th to January 23rd?” For anyone who thinks that niggling concern is enough to prevent the advent of this technology, there is a simple response: Facebook. To anyone older than thirty, it is almost unimaginable what young people today publish about themselves. Technology, not government, will destroy any notion of privacy that held sway until recent decades. When the courts sanctioned taking photos in public, on the grounds that passersby had no expectation of privacy, those judges likely weren’t imagining private drones, which will get smaller, cheaper, and more automated. (Click on photo!)

None of which is meant to detract concern from our burgeoning surveillance state. Or actually, surveillance states. It does argue against one answer that likely is futile. How can we possibly expect to keep from the government away from data that large corporations already gather and sell among themselves? The data will be there. Keeping the government well-behaved requires several things. First, we need to know what the government is doing. One of the worst things about recent discoveries of government spying is the secrecy with which it is done, including the rules developed for it. Secret law is anathema to democracy. Second and related, we need to get away from the war-time footing that currently sanctions spying as a part of a misconceived “war on terror,” and that views whistle blowers and leakers as guilty of espionage. We have let terrorism warp our nation beyond all bounds justified by its small risk.

And then, we have to discuss what law is appropriate in the coming future, when anyone will be able to find out most anything about anyone else.

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