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SciAm Bye-Byes Privacy

Scientific American, November, 1995

Rights of Privacy

Technology has its eyes on you

Privacy, as George Orwell pointed out, rests on some
level on a bargain between people and their machines.
Long before 1984, communications technology had the
potential to become surveillance technology. Now it is.
Not, as Orwell might have predicted, because Big Brother
wants to keep his subjects in thrall but simply because
most people want it to be. By giving up some protective
anonymity, people get safety and service. A majority seem
to think the bargain a very good one -- which is why
everybody should look very carefully at the fine print.

Somewhat ironically for the nation that gave birth to
Orwell, Britain is leading the way in creating the kind
of society that he taught the world to fear. More than
300 British city streets are wired for 24-hour
surveillance by closed-circuit television cameras. From
control rooms, police and private security officers scan
everything that moves, or doesn't, and dispatch police
officers to investigate anything suspicious.

More cities are getting wired all the time, often by
popular demand. Whatever qualms Britons have about
privacy, they are more concerned about crime. The cameras
do seem to reduce crime -- at least in the areas
underneath the cameras. Academics point out that
surveillance seems to have no impact whatsoever on the
overall level of crime, which is rising, but people just
don't seem to care about where the muggers go when they
leave their neighborhood -- particularly when their
neighborhood wasn't too good to begin with.

Safety is not the only reason to embrace surveillance. At
the Olivetti Research Laboratory in Cambridge, for
instance, Andy Hopper and his staff have for years worn
tiny badges that inform their computers where they are
each minute. The point is convenience. Computers
automatically bring to the screen the work of the person
sitting in front of them. Calls are forwarded to the
telephone nearest wherever they happen to be -- unless
the computers detect three or more badge wearers gathered
in the same office, in which case they are assumed to be
in a meeting, and calls are forwarded to their voice

To make life more convenient still, Hopper is trying even
cleverer technologies. Some chairs now contain compasses
that monitor whether they are pointed at a screen, and,
if not, the screen is dimmed to save power. Such devices,
Hopper reckons, are crucial to making computers
effortlessly easy to use. As he puts it, "You can't have
personalization without identification."

But the search for personalization in a high-tech world
may create an uncomfortable situation in the global
village. Villages are safe places but not very private
ones. Mrs. Grundy, peering from behind her lace curtains,
did stop housebreakers. but she also tried to halt many
other things of which she disapproved. There are signs
that Grundyism is returning to Britain. Many of the
crimes recorded by surveillance cameras are worryingly
petty. Arrests for urinating in public have soared. For
better and for worse, cameras that can see in the dark
now line romantic walks to the beaches in seaside towns.

In Britain, as elsewhere, technology and politicians are
about to deepen the privacy dilemma. Cameras are being
linked to smarter computers that can identify people.
Some drivers receive tickets without human intervention.
Video cameras check their speed and read their license
plates. Along with a ticket, the owner is sent a
photograph of the car and driver at the time the speeding
was clocked. A number of companies are touting technology
that can recognize faces by matching video images to
digitized photographs (from, say, drivers' licenses).

The British government, like many others, is also
discussing plans for a national identity card that would,
by giving everyone a number, make it easier to keep track
of personal data. The selling point is convenience. Much
of the work of filling out forms in bureaucratic Britain
is simply to give one branch of government information
that another part already has -- or to correct
information that bureaucrats have got wrong.

Convenient though it may be in theory, the combination of
national identity schemes and surveillance cameras
promises to give governments many of the powers of an
all-seeing God. And there are many reasons to worry that
mere humans would not be as merciful or as competent. Two
aspects of surveillance will prove crucial in determining
the practical terms of the new privacy bargain now being
struck: choice and reciprocity.

Unlike the subject of video surveillance, the wearer of
one of Olivetti's badges can remove the device and
disappear from the system. His electronic identity is
entirely a voluntary one: if he wishes to forward all the
telephone calls the old-fashioned way, by hand, there is
nothing to stop him. Surveillance becomes less intrusive
if it is optional. But choice cannot be a cure for all
the potential ills of surveillance. As electronic
personalization makes electronic identification more
important, that choice becomes harder to manage.

One problem is forgery. If electronic identities can be
taken on and off like sweaters, the risk that fraudsters
will be able to put on somebody else's identity rises.
Besides, as such identification becomes more important,
the sheer effort required to live anonymously will render
choice moot. Anonymity will simply become too much work.

Real village traditions offer hope for the lazy and the
identifiable. In village life, surveillance was
reciprocal: if Mrs. Grundy knew a lot about you, you also
knew a lot about her -- and you knew what she knew about
you. Technology should further extend this reciprocity.
The badges in the Olivetti lab provide a way of locating
any badge wearer. But they also allow badge wearers to
track anybody who is trying to locate them. There can
indeed be no personalization without identification, but
there is increasingly little excuse for identification
without notification. The same computers and networks
that send faces, names and numbers whizzing around the
world could also be required to send notification back to
each of those identified, each time they have been
spotted. Even as the world becomes more personalized and
less private, there is no reason for the electronic
global vilage to become less personable than a thatched
one, or less fair. 

Photo caption: Video cameras will scan the crowd at the
1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. The security system can
transmit images for identification.

--John Browning


The issue also has a brief report by Paul Wallich on
"Meta-Virus: Breaking the hardware species barrier,"
which reviews recently-publicized security flaws in the
Net, with quotes by William Cheswick of AT&T Bell Labs on
the issue and Hot Java.