Sunday, August 29, 2004

A Future in Which We're Always Watched

Editorial: Tracking privacy
By Larry Garfield
Location tracking devices are becoming more and more prevalent, from tracking kids to tracking the elderly. But, Larry Garfield asks, at what cost to privacy?

With the release of several new phones of late targeted at specific users with automatic always-on or on-demand location tracking, the question of personal privacy once again comes to the forefront. Do we really want the phone company, or the government, to be able to determine where we (or our mobile phones) are at any given time? Life would be a lot easier if the answer to that question was simple.

There certainly are obvious advantages to being able to pinpoint someone on-demand, including yourself. Navigation software is based on knowing your own location with a high degree of accuracy. The question "what is the nearest X near me?" (ATM, police station, embassy) rather depends on knowing where you are. Those services already exist, and cause virtually no privacy issue because the information and power is in the hand of the person being tracked. Tracking yourself is not a violation of anyone's privacy, to be sure.

What about being tracked by another party, however? "Finding lost children" is the standard knee-jerk justification brought out, and it's hard to dismiss. Children have an innate skill for finding the most inopportune times and places to get lost, even without questions of kidnapping. Certainly we want to be able to track our own children's location on-demand, whether they're lost in a shopping mall or being held for ransom.

But at what cost? For that to work, there must be a network in place to be able to track a person, either by some regularly recorded biometric or other identifiable data (facial recognition systems in downtown Boston, license plate cameras all over downtown London) or by some carried or implanted tracking device (always-on GPS, implanted radio chip, RFID tags). All of those do a lot more than find lost children. They give the tracker, who is not the person being tracked nor that person's parent or guardian, an immense about of information about where the person goes, with whom they associate, what they do, what they buy, what their musical tastes are, what their political opinions are. That gives the tracker immense power with a capital P, as in Potential for abuse.

If history has shown anything, it's that massive storehouses of proprietary information, and power in general, will be abused. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon enough to worry about it now. Remember how spammers buy massive lists of e-mail addresses submitted on web sites in exchange for some service? Imagine location-specific spam for any restaurant in your immediate area, auto-dialed to your mobile phone at the time you most frequently have dinner. Imagine the insurance company knowing exactly what you had for dinner so they adjust your health insurance premiums accordingly. Imagine an unscrupulous government agency knowing with whom you had dinner in order to decide whether or not you are a dangerous unpatriotic dissident. Imagine someone getting a job at a location tracking company in order to see when you are at dinner and not with your child so that he can kidnap her, then knowing how to sabotage the system. Is that worth it?

It's not an easy one-sided answer. Knowledge is power. With modern technology, the knowledge is or will soon be there, for better or worse. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Having all of that information about people stored by any agency, public or private, comes closer to absolute power than we've ever seen before in history. On the other hand, democratized, distributed power has enormous potential for good when people can control their own information without a centralized authority. Witness the Internet itself.

"For the children", "to stop the terrorists", and other hot-button justifications aside, these are genuinely important questions that must be asked and debated from the bottom up, starting with anyone considering buying any product that includes location or identification tracking be it GPS or RFID. For my part, I'll find my own restaurant and keep my privacy to myself, not put it in the hands of a tracking company or government, thank you.

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