Illustration by Mike LeeABOUT 15 YEARS AGO, MY HIGH SCHOOL CIVICS TEACHER (who would later be arrested in front of the class for refusing to pay income tax) invited a professor from a nearby college to talk to us about how the world was headed to hell in an Orwellian handbasket. He was mighty disappointed when the prof insisted instead that we were moving toward Huxley's Brave New World, amusing ourselves into attention-deficient immobility.*
Thanks to the Net, they can both be right.
Attached please find five recent widely reported technology developments that, taken together, should discomfit even the most law-abiding, SUV-driving, politically oblivious latte-esthete. Roll the following five statements around in your head and see if you, too, don't start feeling uneasy.
YOU NO LONGER HAVE THE RIGHT NOT TO INCRIMINATE YOURSELF.
Taking the Fifth is a nice tactic on Law and Order, but the point is virtually moot in real life; your body and history have already betrayed you. Your fingerprints are on file at such places as the bank, the DMV and the welfare office; you can even be asked for a thumbprint to cash traveler's checks (or write personal checks). Many well-meaning parents have contributed their children's fingerprints to government databases voluntarily, thanks to the allegedly ever-present specter of child abduction. (Show of hands, please, of everyone who's had a child abducted. Now let's see a show of hands for all those whose children have been stopped by police for vandalism, traffic violations or worse. Now, how do you think those fingerprint files will be used?)
Your hair is of interest to thousands of potential employers and some schools, who find it provides a much longer-term drug-use profile than does the old-fashioned piss test. Your child's treasured school yearbook doubles as a collection of mug shots for the local cops in many urban areas. And your banking and credit history -- sensitive and personal data in the lives of even the most innocuous among us -- is anybody's baby if your bank decides to pimp it out. And your driver's-license info is for sale to telemarketers and insurance companies.
Even the open road isn't so open these days. With devices such as Lo-Jack and GM's Sensing and Diagnostic Module (which monitors your car to discover causes of mechanical failures and accidents), your vehicle can send information about your whereabouts and driving peccadilloes back to the manufacturer, or to the cops. The Sensing and Diagnostic Module has raised the ire of even sleepy old conservative William Safire, who doesn't want his car spying on his bad driving habits. (He has apparently chosen to ignore the 2,400 police surveillance cameras monitoring the streets of his beloved New York, but every little bit helps.)
And thanks to the 1994 Crime Control Act, your DNA is scheduled to go on file nationally within the next few years. This data is available to federal, state and local investigators, and there are precious few legal guidelines as to how it can be used. (Pondering the irony of a DNA database signed into law by Bill "Blue Dress" Clinton is left as an exercise for the reader.)
All these indignities are brought to you by databases -- vast collections of tiny shards of knowledge. Once upon a time, it wasn't possible to collect that much data on one person, and even if it had been possible to collect it, it wasn't possible to enter it in a computer in a timely fashion, and even if it had been possible to collect it and enter it in a computer, it wasn't possible to correlate it with all the other information in all the other databases. Those days are over, and the only legacy we have of them is a dire lack of laws regarding who owns the information the database has about you and what they can do with it. But we do know who doesn't own it: you, buster. And by the way . . .
YOU HAVE BEEN PRICED OUT OF THE MARKETPLACE OF IDEAS.
As for your personal data, forget those clickpaths and cookies and other bits of online data, which most folks will happily exchange for a free PC or a chance at winning a VW Beetle or some shiny beads. What about your genetic history? Ask the good people of Iceland, whose government in December sold the rights to the entire country's health, genetic and genealogical info to deCODE Genetics, which in turn has licensed it to Swiss pharmaceutical mega-company Hoffman-LaRoche. No one was asked to sign consent forms -- and once an individual's info is in that database, she can't ask to have it removed. Someone else quite literally owns the rights to her.
DOT-COM BUSINESSES HAVE LITTLE IMPERATIVE TO STAND UP FOR YOU, THE CUSTOMER.
Dot-coms may be swashbuckling when it comes to financing and IPOs, but they're timid as kittens when it comes to standing up for their clientele. For instance, Amazon.com has shown several times in the past few months that speaking to them in a sharp tone of voice will scare them enough to pull books off their un-shelves -- a decision that earned the un-bookstore widespread derision from real booksellers, long accustomed to standing up for books threatened to be censored or banned.
But Amazon's not alone under the electronic dunce cap. Around the world, ISPs deny users access to various parts of the Net for fear of specious lawsuits. As I write this, an SOS has gone up from the U.K., where provider Demon Internet has blocked customer access to certain Usenet areas under threat of a libel suit by one Dr. Laurence Godfrey, who has made something of a career of suing people he feels have defamed him on the Net. According to the U.K. courts, Demon is liable for damages if it does not prevent its users from reading the alleged libel on Demon news servers. Though Demon representatives claim to be confident of winning the libel case, they failed to appeal the liability ruling, which may in the end be the more damning precedent.
ISPs have themselves been the target of an increasing number of "John Doe" lawsuits, which hamstring individual users' attempts to shield their identity. A John Doe suit is filed before the names of the defendants are actually known; the complainant's lawyer can then subpoena an ISP or online service for the real name and personal information of the user they claim has done them wrong. (In fact, in some cases an actual lawsuit is overkill; the Digital Millennium Copyright Act makes it possible to issue subpoenas to get such information without any suit being filed.) Many of these suits have been â filed by companies hunting down online detractors, but at least one has been filed by the Church of Scientology to obtain the identity of a former church member who has posted copyrighted Church texts in the past. That person responded to AT&T WorldNet's dangerous lack of customer support, so to speak, in the only way he/she could: "I guess it won't surprise anybody that because AT&T has put my life at risk [from] this harassment organization, I will be switching both Internet service providers and my long-distance service from AT&T to MCI."
Meanwhile, back at the office, pending legislation would allow software companies to disable (by remote control!) programs you bought and paid for. Allegedly, this protects companies from the scourge of piracy. But what happens the first time someone names, say, Microsoft as a party to a libel suit because Word was used to create the defaming pamphlet? If it came to light that Adobe Photoshop was the preferred graphics package of the Aryan Nation, wouldn't it be good PR for Adobe to shut the Nation's software down? What if a firm with known right-wing leanings, such as Solid Oak Software, was able to purchase the licensing and shutoff rights to software used by Planned Parenthood or the ACLU? And speaking of shutdowns . . .
YOUR GOVERNMENT HIRES HACKERS TO WAGE UNDECLARED WARS IN YOUR NAME.
U.S.-government sites ranging from the FBI to the Department of the Interior have gotten walloped by hackers during the past few weeks, and the Feds are wringing their hands in the media about how these nasty hackers are simply common criminals and not making a political statement at all, whatever they may claim. So what does it mean when the Feds enlist hackers to attack foreign governments and their sovereign rulers?
In May, Newsweek published reports stating that government hackers had been authorized to "diddle" with Serb president Slobodan Milosevic's international bank accounts. Whether or not you regard that kind of news as mere FUD, it hardly inspires confidence in your own account's security or sanctity. And what happens if you become an enemy of the state? (Can you imagine how much fun Dick Nixon could have had with a roomful of hackers and his enemies list?)
YOUR GOVERNMENT ALLOWS -- NO, ENCOURAGES -- OTHERS TO SPY ON YOU.
Can you imagine a system of spy posts and satellites that captures almost every e-mail, fax, phone call or other transmission, scans it for certain key words and concepts, and files it (and you, the sender or recipient) for future reference? And what if the U.S., U.K., Canadian and other governments were working together to spy on each other's citizens with such a device? It sounds like X-Files conspiracy fodder. Problem is, last month the Australian government admitted to The (Melbourne) Age that science fiction became science fact years ago.
The system is called Echelon, and it's run by a five-country consortium called UKUSA, which for the past 50 years has been in the business of signals intelligence ("sigint"). In the U.S., Echelon's operation falls in the bailiwick of the National Security Agency.
According to some published reports, Echelon automatically intercepts millions of messages per hour and feeds them into a system called the Dictionary, which parses them against "collection requirements" specified by the various spy agencies involved; messages with attention-getting content are routed to the requesting agencies. According to the Australian government, some of the current collection filters seek out Japanese trade-ministry plans, information on Pakistani nuclear capabilities, and various data on North Korea's slide into the economic abyss. Economic information is, in fact, highly pertinent data for the signatory countries, and there are few restrictions on collecting it.
The computing firepower involved is prodigious, but it's not unattainable. (Echelon also includes taps on the Net and, since 1971, on underwater cables.) It has been documented that Echelon monitors the communications infrastructures used by diplomats, criminals and industrialists; what's unknown is how far its net is cast and how much data is actually parsed. Worse, the heavy veil of secrecy under which Echelon has operated makes its workings opaque even to U.S. government officials. The NSA likes it like that; when Congress recently requested more disclosure on Echelon-related information, the NSA declined to cooperate, citing (to the bafflement of Congress) attorney-client privilege.
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The good news is that the U.S. may be about to get its Echelon flakes frosted by the international community. Since the U.S. and the U.K. have been denying the existence of UKUSA for nearly half a century, one can only imagine how overjoyed they were to see the Australians on the record about it. Various European parliamentary bodies have commissioned reports to discover exactly what info Echelon tracks and what's done with it; a number of companies (including Boeing nemesis Airbus) have already charged the U.S. with redirecting sensitive information to "preferred" American competitors. And the backlash is widening: The U.K., formerly in virtual lockstep with U.S. calls for privacy "key escrow," has suddenly stepped off the bus. (Key escrow allows private citizens to use data-protecting encryption, as long as the government is free to decrypt it -- sort of like putting a lock on your door, but being required to leave a key hanging next to the doorbell.)
Now, before you flip the page and forget about this cant, because all this wild-eyed talk is annoying and because the government isn't really going to bother People Like Us because we're not (choose one: criminals, addicts, foreigners, left-wing, right-wing, poor, rich, online shoppers, hackers, terrorists, of color), get this straight: You may not think you're a dangerous commodity, and I sure may not think you're a dangerous commodity, but that doesn't matter. You're being tracked, hacked and attacked anyway -- just in case -- just like the rest of us.
*According to a recent article in The Progressive Review, more than 100 of the 137 predictors or indicators of a grim, totalitarian future in Orwell's 1984 have already come to pass. As for the other side, one of the most promising e-commerce sites has named itself soma.com -- a Brave New World homage that went almost entirely unnoticed.