Building Big Brother

By CIOinsight  |  Posted 08-08-2003

Our government and business leaders are building architectures of citizen and customer surveillance that may be hard to dismantle, warns computer scientist and privacy activist Marc Rotenberg, founder and executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C. An edited version of his interview with executive editor Marcia Stepanek follows.

Consider for a moment, on the 100th anniversary of George Orwell's birth, the interplay between technology and privacy. In 1984, Orwell reminded us that technology helps governments and institutions to consolidate power. The book also describes the use of technologies like the telescreen to observe people in their private lives, to limit them and to create among individuals a sense that they are constantly being watched—the Big Brother concept.

Today, in the U.S., we don't have that kind of consolidated, centralized control, of course, but it's not hard to imagine that over time, through a combination of technology and political changes, aspects of that type of control could emerge. Right now we're seeing a lot more money coming from the government to build new types of surveillance and domestic spying systems. In the business world, we're seeing all sorts of new tracking technologies, like RFID systems, being used to find out more about customers and how they use products in the home.

Using technology to track individual behavior more closely has made a lot of people uncomfortable. Even people in the industry who are looking to win some of those government surveillance contracts are wondering if this is really the business they want to be in.

This movement to establish an architecture of surveillance seems to me to be one of the critical challenges facing the country in the 21st century. Partly, it has to do with a very different way that law and technology respond to national crises today. Historically, there's been a pendulum effect, times when we've entered a period of crisis like a war or a threat to national security. Individual rights are diminished and the power of the state is expanded, and you go through a period of restricted liberty. Then the threat subsides, the pendulum swings back. Liberties are re-established and arguably enlarged, and over time, rights are expanded. We saw this with Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War, the imprisonment of pacifists during World War I and the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II. After each of those conflicts and crises, individual rights were restored.

We now have the Patriot Act, which gives the government the ability, through the use of information technology, to track the movements of people in unprecedented ways. Yet while many provisions of the Patriot Act are set to automatically expire two years from now, the technologies that we are putting in place post-Sept. 11, like biometric passports, like face recognition in airports, like surveillance cameras, are probably going to be with us long after the current threat subsides. I'm thinking about how these systems get dismantled, and what it would take to remove the cameras from public streets or to conclude that biometric identification is no longer necessary.

Will the airline passenger profiling system become a permanent feature, or will we be able to dismantle it? Here you have a government evaluating a person who's seeking to board a plane, an evaluation that involves a review of private-sector and government databases, and a determination by the government that says you're okay or not okay to get on an airplane. If your name is Bill Nelson, for example, you're going to be in a lot of trouble trying to get on an airplane because there's a Bill Nelson out there who the government considers very dangerous. A lot of Bill Nelsons going to weddings and such have been stopped and kept off planes recently—and they're not being told why. This is a bit like being turned down for a home loan because of a credit report, but not being shown the credit report. It may simply be there is an error in the airline's record books that suggests you had traveled to Afghanistan in 1987 or been involved in some other type of activity that created concern on the government's part. Trouble is, the Bill Nelsons aren't being told why they can't get on the plane, regardless of whether the information they're being judged on is correct or not.

We live with the reality that information technology is tremendously productive, but it also creates this complex social issue concerning both the use and misuse of personal information. I don't think it's an issue that's ever really solved, much like I don't think environmental protection in the industrial era was ever really solved. But these are not challenges you can ignore. People who say our privacy is gone and suggest that we should simply "Get over it," do not offer a workable solution. We need to do better.