Think Privacy is Threatened Today…Just Wait Until Tomorrow!
Only a century ago, most people were known only by name and occupation. Records of your great-grandparents’ existence were likely limited to birth records, baptismal records, death records, census records, the purchase of a home, and perhaps the payment of property tax. Even this information was generally filed and forgotten, because of the considerable expense involved in paying clerks to organize it.
Your great-grandparents could purchase primitive telephones, automobiles, and electric appliances, if they could afford them. However, no systematic recordkeeping existed of the phone calls they made or where they drove in their vehicle. Of course, no cell phones existed, no Internet, and no biometric tools to identify anyone other than basic fingerprinting.
Fast-forward from 1912 to 2012, and we enter a very different era. Here are a few examples from my files:
Mobile police biometric systems. Here in Arizona, police and sheriff's departments statewide have rolled out a system called the "Mobile Offender Recognition and Information System," or MORIS. This is a device that slides over an iPhone. An officer simply snaps a photo of your face and runs the image through software that hunts for a match in a criminal records database. MORIS can scan your face up to four feet away, potentially without you being aware of it. Naturally, the law doesn't consider this a "search," and you need not consent to this intrusion.
You can probably see where this headed. Eventually, you'll be able to point your cell phone at strangers walking down the street, and MORIS-like software will eventually identify them and perhaps even call up Facebook postings and publicly available data.
License plate scanners. Police across the United States have also introduced portable devices to read the license plates of every vehicle that passes by. The scanners can read nearly 2,000 license plates each minute. A transmitter sends your plate number to a database to be instantly cross-referenced with the plate numbers of known offenders. If you're wanted in connection with any offense, police are dispatched to pull over your vehicle and detain you.
The law doesn't consider this a search, either. The courts have held that operating a motor vehicle is a privilege and not a right. If you drive on a public highway, you implicitly consent to this type of surveillance.
Wi-fi radar sees through walls. New technology makes it possible for someone to use your wi-fi signal to follow your movements around your own home. It works by measuring the frequency changes when the wi-fi signal bounces off a moving object—you, in this case. Wi-fi radar remains experimental, but it can already measure your location, speed, and direction of movement through a one-foot-thick brick wall. Eventually this technology will be used for applications ranging from spotting intruders in a home to identifying combatants in urban warfare. It could even permit surveillance while you sleep by measuring movements of your ribcage each time you take a breath.
Is this a search? Perhaps not, because police could argue that by using a wi-fi signal to communicate with the outside world via the Internet, you have a lowered expectation of privacy for how someone else uses that signal outside your home.
Hacking into the human brain. Researchers have demonstrated that using off-the-shelf hardware, they can literally read your mind. In an experiment, researchers equipped volunteers with a headset that can detect and process brain waves. Then, they showed the volunteers a series of images, including photos of banks, card PINs, etc. The researchers found that the volunteers' brains "leaked" data that was considerably less random than the data released when the volunteers weren't viewing the images. Eventually, researchers believe the technology can be refined so that an interrogator can learn where you live, where you bank, and even obtain the PINs to your financial accounts simply by showing you a series of suggestive images.
In the future, you may not need to say anything to incriminate yourself. Police may simply place a headset on you and then ask you a series of questions. Does the "right to silence" apply to mind-reading? Time will tell!
All of these trends point to less and less privacy in the future. My only suggestion to mitigate their impact is to live as your great-grandparents did, without vehicles, without the Internet or wi-fi, and course, without headsets that can monitor your brainwave activity. Even that may not be enough, once face recognition software becomes widespread on smartphones. Closing social media accounts and not posting photos on the Internet will at least minimize the information curious passers-by can retrieve by surreptitiously taking your photo.
Of course, this can lead to another set of problems: some psychologists say staying away from social media is "suspicious." After all, neither James Holmes (accused of murdering 12 people in a Colorado theater earlier this month) nor Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik had a Facebook profile. Is not joining Facebook a sign you're a psychopath?
For most of us, though, living as our great-grandparents did simply isn't practical. We consent to greater surveillance of our daily lives simply by living in the modern world.
How do you react to modern threats to privacy? Please share your thoughts!
Copyright © 2012 by Mark Nestmann
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