Webcams Today Can Take You to the intersection of 34th St. and Broadway in New York City, to a checkpoint at the Finnish-Russian border or, for that matter, to the shower stall of a pert college girl making a fast buck from fee-paying voyeurs. But, with the advent of better search tools, more-comprehensive public databases, and pervasive sensors, we're moving beyond monitoring pedestrian activities and indulging prurient cravings. Soon we'll be able to tap into the life of anyone we encounter with a simple query, knowing all the while that our lives are exposed to the same scrutiny.
Technology's inexorable advance has brought the world's democracies to a crucial juncture: will next-generation citizens keep an eye on each other in a golden "age of transparency," as famously imagined by science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke in his 1988 novel, 2061: Odyssey Three? Or will the tools of surveillance and data analysis be wielded exclusively and with impunity by governments and corporations?
This much we do know: a combination of political, cultural, and economic factors are transforming our world into a place where people, transactions, and things can be observed, monitored, and recorded almost everywhere, and almost all the time. Within the next several years, we'll be awash in powerful, cheap sensors: radio-frequency ID (RFID) tags that track objects (and the people who happen to be wearing, riding, or chatting into them); biometric sensors that will identify us by our unique irises, fingerprints, voices, walking patterns, or other physical quirks; Global Positioning System receivers, embedded into all manner of things, able to track us to within a meter; and tiny, high-resolution digital still and video cameras, also built into everything, from cellphones to wallpaper.
The resulting torrent of data will cascade into government and corporate data systems, as well as that system of systems, the Internet. Facts and information that are largely incoherent but overwhelming in volume and detail will accumulate in databases too scattered and numerous--and valuable--to be shut off completely from the rest of cyberspace.
Without a doubt, though, we'll try to do just that. In fact, we've already started. Researchers, mostly in academia, are now working on various privacy-enhancing technologies [see Sensors and Sensibility elsewhere in this issue]. But champions of a transparent society, where the light of accountability would shine upon all of us, contend that over the longer term these privacy enhancers will be like sandbag walls against that relentlessly rising tide of data. They'll keep little areas "dry" for a while, and give some of us a measure of comfort, but will fail to shield us in any absolute, permanent, or globally effective way. We must embrace the technologies of surveillance, these advocates contend, and in doing so, ensure that we can point the electronic eye right back at the people and institutions who watch us.
This viewpoint--articulated most comprehensively by science fiction novelist David Brin in his 1998 treatise, The Transparent Society--runs contrary to the opinions many of us hold about privacy. At the other end of the privacy spectrum, activist groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Privacy Information Center seem to see ominous portents in every new sensor advance and federal initiative. Each side is grappling with the continuing evolution in seeing and knowing that has been remaking society for centuries.
Our history since the Renaissance has been an endless quest to extend our ability to see and remember. Beginning with microscopes and moveable type, speeding up with photography and public libraries, and accelerating with television, the personal computer, and perhaps most important of all, the Internet, each advance set off waves of technical innovation, individual productivity, and artistic expression. At the same time, these inventions forced us to reexamine and revamp our economies, political institutions, and ethics in light of our increasing power to acquire, analyze, and act on data about ourselves and the world we were making.