In this second part of my continuing rant on technology, I take a look at the sharing of our personal information, who wants to peek at that data, and how our privacy is compromised.

Panopticon vs. Exhibitionism

I probably don’t need to inform you how various forms of surveillance having been popping up around us for quite some time.  From cameras at intersections to ATMs, from our SSNs to our ISPs, and from satellite imaging to the Patriot Act, the powers that be can readily identify most law-abiding citizens and their actions with regular accuracy (and sometimes even those who are not so law-abiding).  And they’re constantly adding more tools to their arsenal.

Facial recognition technology is evolving quickly, with demands from the military and government to improve the ability to identify subjects in the non-frontal and non-static images usually caught on surveillance cameras.  Plenty of work is being done by scientists to address this issue, and, while it is certainly a worthy cause to nab criminals, terrorists, and other undesirables of the hour, most technology developed for the military/government eventually makes its way into our daily lives.

I recently renewed my license at the DMV, and “for my own protection,” I digitally scanned my fingerprints into the database.  Facial recognition and digital fingerprinting has also made its way into Pizza Hut and KFC to keep a strict eye on their employees—I mean for security purposes.  I even saw the cashier at my local Wendy’s have to scan her thumb to work the register.

Ostensibly these measures in the workplace are to eliminate cheating and slacking in these high-security jobs.  But I think it further dehumanizes the workers as a not-so-subtle-side effect of this new technology.  This software literally reduces us to our constituent parts in order to identify us (our eyes and fingerprints are unique to us and are both simply a physical characteristic).  We truly become a simple cog in the greater machine of corporations when we walk this road.  Much like using the right tool for the job (say a square peg for a square hole on the assembly line), the tech ensures the right object (the worker) is what they’re supposed to be and in the place they’re supposed to be (the cashier slotted in at the register).

There was this old philosopher Jeremy Bentham who envisioned an ideal prison called the Panopticon.  It was basically a circular prison that gave the inmates the impression that they were constantly being watched, even if they weren’t.  The idea is that humans tend to behave if they think the authorities are watching and could suffer consequence for not abiding by the rules/laws those authorities set forth (everyone slows down when passing a cop on the road).

I’m not saying that the government is building a Panopticon per se, but one could see the constant state of surveillance acting as a de facto means to do just that, albeit under the guise of national/homeland security.  (Take a look at the government-proposed “Data Eye in the Sky” that automatically collects information from the internet, cell phones, and so forth.  According to one excited researcher: “If I have hourly information about your location, with about 93 percent accuracy I can predict where you are going to be an hour or a day later.”).

Of course, it’s not just a blogger’s incarnate Big Brother we ought to be concerned with; we do a great job of voluntarily policing ourselves.  With ubiquitous video/photographic cameras built into our cell/smart phones, YouTube, Flickr, and Facebook are a veritable treasure trove of human behavior in its less savory moments.  These can range from simply embarrassing to evidence of actual criminal conduct, and it’s all posted in the public domain.  We often decry stringent government surveillance (if we know about it), but we often encourage or invite our moments of poor decision-making to be posted on social network sites in an incredible display of willful hypocrisy (or narcissism).

Even if we don’t want our social networking information to be readily available, Facebook’s constantly changing formats, privacy preferences (and terms) makes it quite difficult for the average user to stay on top of keeping their personal information locked down.

Sure, many of the things we use are voluntary (Facebook, Google, apps for our imachines), but when these things become so commonplace in everyday use, one must come ever closer to emulating the Mennonites to not be involved with the “great wireless grab-bag of info” floating around out there.

So what to do?  I’ve heard a couple of sides to the privacy arguments.  On one hand, if you haven’t done anything wrong, you don’t have anything to hide, so what does it matter if the government/authorities have access to your personal information?  On the other hand, if we continue down this path with our civil liberties and freedoms slowly nibbled away at the edges, we’ll soon be living in 1984.  Mostly, I think that it’s important for people to know what is happening with their personal information, surveillance measures, and care about it (beyond their SSNs and browser history).  In this era where information is power, if we can tear ourselves away from vapid distractions (noise) and focus on the signal, we’ll all be better off.

Next time I want to take a look at cyberwarfare, hackers, and the goverment’s role in protecting our information infrastructure.