[Paleopsych] Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: Smile for the camera

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Smile for the camera
[1]Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists [2]Doomsday Clock

    No Place to Hide
    By Robert O'Harrow Jr.
    Free Press, 2005
    348 pages, $26

    By David Brin
    July/August 2005  pp. 64-67 (vol. 61, no. 04)

    O ne can all too easily get caught up in today's atmosphere of
    desperate worry. Democrats and Republicans who disagree over many
    things seem to share a perception that civilization is plunging into
    crisis. Post-9/11 unease goes beyond airport inconvenience, economic
    disruption, and military conflict, all the way to jeremiads warning
    against technological innovations.

    Amid this gloom, I take solace from that most discomforting of
    symbols, the Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists,
    which helped crystallize an earlier generation's end-of-the-world
    parable. The day still has not yet come when any combination of terror
    attacks could wreak as much harm as the lethal cargo of a single
    ballistic missile submarine. So should not our worry level be lower
    than it was in, say, 1980?

    But people don't use game theory to weigh their fears, and the new
    science of threat psychology explains why. The Cold War was run mostly
    by professionals, but terror attacks seem unguided by logic. It is the
    unpredictable and irrational threat, above all, that makes us shiver.

    Does this explain why we hear so many commentators expressing fear of
    technological change? Take Francis Fukuyama, professor at the Johns
    Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, whose The End of
    History and the Last Man (1992) suggested that the collapse of
    communism might be the final event worth chronicling before Earth
    slides, happily ever after, into blithe liberal democracy. Alas,
    short-lived jubilation swiftly gave way to pessimism in Our Posthuman
    Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution (2002), in which
    Fukuyama condemns a wide range of potentially disruptive biological
    advances. People cannot be trusted to make wise use of, for example,
    genetic therapy, he says. Human "improvability" is so perilous a
    concept that he prescribes joint government-industry panels to control
    or ban whole avenues of scientific investigation. Fukuyama is hardly
    alone in fretting over technological innovation gone amok. Popular
    authors Margaret Atwood and Michael Crichton have probably never voted
    for the same party or candidate. Yet their novels share a persistent
    theme with many other antimodernists, both left and right, who doubt
    human ability to solve problems or to cope. Pondering the challenges
    of tomorrow, they say, "Don't go there."

    No issue has stoked this ecumenical sense of alienation more than the
    Great Big Privacy Scare. While the information age seems on one level
    benign--the internet can't blast, kill, mutate, or infect us--social
    repercussions of new data-handling technologies seem daunting.
    Pundits, spanning the spectrum from William Safire to Jeffrey Rosen,
    have proclaimed this to be our ultimate test. I don't disagree.

    Every day, powerful, interconnected databases fill with information
    about you and about me, fed by inputs from our every purchase and
    telephone call. New sensor technologies add cascades of detail, not
    just from the vast proliferation of cameras (which are getting
    cheaper, smaller, faster, and more mobile every year), but also from
    radio frequency identification tags that identify and track objects
    (as well as the people who happen to be wearing, riding, or chatting
    into them), along with biometric devices that identify people by their
    irises, retinas, fingerprints, voices, or dozens of other physical
    markers. These gadgets' torrential output will feed into the
    internet's sophisticated successors--government and corporate
    databases that hunt for connections and make inferences based on them.

    It all sounds pretty dreadful, and Washington Post reporter Robert
    O'Harrow Jr. reinforces this disheartening view with copious detail in
    his new book, No Place to Hide, offering one of the most thorough
    litanies of information and privacy abuse since Simson Garfinkel's
    Database Nation: The Death of Privacy in the 21st Century (2000).

    O'Harrow's complaints about the behavior of voracious data-mining
    groups, such as Acxiom, LexisNexis, and ChoicePoint, are accurate and
    timely. Just after No Place to Hide was published, several companies
    were caught violating either their own privacy-protection rules or
    their legal obligations to safeguard private data. Security breaches
    at ChoicePoint and LexisNexis exposed tens of thousands of supposedly
    secure private records, including credit card information and Social
    Security numbers. Such events steadily erode trust and increase the
    near-term danger that we all face from crimes like identity theft.

    O'Harrow shows that privacy problems are nothing new, giving readers a
    historical context that builds on Vance Packard's The Naked Society
    (1964) and Arthur R. Miller's Assault on Privacy (1971) and includes a
    rundown of post-Watergate reforms that were supposed to end
    surveillance abuses. Indeed, many of today's arguments about the
    proper balance between privacy rights and law enforcement needs are
    rooted in the pre-internet era. But today, the government is vastly
    better equipped, with aptly named tools like "Carnivore" and "The
    Matrix" that empower the agencies of our paid protector caste to
    penetrate telephone lines, e-mail traffic, myriad databases, and more,
    sifting for anything that their constantly shifting criteria might
    deem threat-related.

    The post-9/11 era, which spawned angst over an amorphous and
    ill-defined enemy, has aggravated a political divide that has been
    around for years. This chasm separates those who emphasize a need for
    enhanced security from those who urge that we accept a little added
    risk in order to preserve traditional liberties. Nowhere has this edgy
    debate swirled more bitterly than around provisions of the PATRIOT
    Act, which dramatically bolstered the federal government's wiretap and
    surveillance powers while at the same time shrouding law enforcement
    activity in a haze of heightened secrecy.

    O'Harrow chronicles the evolution of this landmark law in New
    Journalism style, "through the eyes of" such players as Vermont
    Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy and Assistant Attorney General Viet Dinh
    (who both pushed for different versions of an anti-terrorism bill
    after 9/11), following them at breakfast, in the car, and through the
    meetings in which adamant, no-compromise positions took form.
    Forsaking any pretense of impartiality, O'Harrow venerates the ACLU
    lobbyists who "grasped the difficulty of their position. They were
    trying to persuade Americans to hold fast to concerns about individual
    freedom and privacy while the vast majority of people were terrified."

    No passage better illustrates O'Harrow's approach to this serious
    issue, typifying the snobbery of those on both right and left who
    share a common need to portray the American people as hapless sheep
    who either require protection from terrorists, or protection from
    overprotection. Only a few commentators, notably the Boston Globe's
    Elaine Scarry, have pointed out that in fact most Americans did not
    panic or act terrified on, or after, 9/11.

    If you want a detailed series of anecdotes showing how databases and
    data mining can be surreptitiously abused, then read No Place to Hide
    and find out how many groups, from industry to government to criminal
    gangs, are trying to gather information on you. Campaigns to control
    this information-gathering frenzy--for example, when Congress stopped
    the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's efforts to achieve
    "total information awareness"--simply drive the trend toward universal
    data collection underground. Meanwhile, supposedly secure systems,
    like those at LexisNexis, are breached with apparent regularity. And
    once information floats free, there is no calling it back.

    As O'Harrow follows real-life characters, showing their quirky hobbies
    and their passionate battles for or against privacy rights, another
    common theme emerges. Everyone appears to accept the underlying
    premise of a zero-sum game, a "great dichotomy"--the notion that one
    must choose, or strike some balance, between freedom and safety.

    One can hardly blame O'Harrow for imbuing his book with an assumption
    that seems both widespread and intuitively obvious. Wisconsin
    Democratic Sen. Russell Feingold, a very smart man, nevertheless
    accepted this trade-off during the PATRIOT Act debates: "There is no
    doubt that if we lived in a police state, it would be easier to catch
    terrorists. If we lived in a country where the police were allowed to
    search your home at any time, for any reason. . . . But that would not
    be a country in which we would want to live."

    A truism--but truisms can mislead. The notion of a freedom-security
    trade-off insidiously serves the interests of those who oppose
    freedom, because there will inevitably come days when security seems
    paramount to a frightened public. Liberty will lose any resulting
    ratchet effect. But the dismal "trade-off" notion is disproved by a
    simple counter-example--us. In all of history, no people were ever so
    safe and so free. A civilization of vigilant, technologically
    empowered problem-solvers can and should make safety and freedom
    codependent. Citizens may learn to thrive, even in an environment
    where various elites know much about them.

    "Surveillance comes with a price," O'Harrow writes. "It dulls the edge
    of public debate, imposes a sense of conformity, introduces a feeling
    of being watched. It chills culture and stifles dissent." This, too,
    sounds intuitively obvious, and it was almost certainly true in most
    other societies, in which narrow elites monopolized both power and the
    flow of information. But should we accept it, unexamined, as a valid
    assumption about the United States today?

    One might hope that after listing numerous threats to privacy,
    O'Harrow would offer some solutions or ideas for change.
    Unfortunately, he goes from introduction to conclusion without ever
    proposing a single suggestion, or even a palliative, to remedy
    burgeoning surveillance and its accompanying trends. The book lives up
    to its gloomy title and premise--its implicit prescription is "grumble
    at the inevitable."

    It did not have to be that way. Early in No Place to Hide, O'Harrow
    quotes a prophetic speech in which President Dwight D. Eisenhower
    warned against "the acquisition of unwarranted influence . . . by the
    military-industrial complex." (Former Clinton administration privacy
    counselor Peter Swire has echoed this famous admonition by referring
    to a security-industrial complex--an apt comparison.) O'Harrow then
    continues with an even more cogent excerpt from the same speech: "Only
    an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of
    the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our
    peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper

    There it is--an alternative to grumbling and to the dichotomy of
    gloom. Alas, O'Harrow offers the quotation and then moves quickly on,
    never commenting on how Eisenhower's statement differs so vastly from
    others in the book. For while warning of danger, Ike also spoke of
    opportunity and offered pragmatic ingredients for a genuine
    solution--a positive-sum solution based on Americans doing what they
    do best--living both safe and free.

    Human destiny is not predetermined by any of the flourishing
    surveillance technologies that O'Harrow details. I agree that nothing
    we can do will stop the ballooning growth of databases and microscopic
    cameras, proliferating across the land like crocuses after a spring
    rain. And yet I remain optimistic because educated citizens of a
    modern civilization may be capable of playing a different role than
    the one plotted out for them by smug elites, a role other than as
    bleating sheep.

    David Brin, a scientist, public speaker, and writer, is the author of
    the novel The Postman (1985) and the nonfiction book The Transparent
    Society (1998), which deals with openness, security, and liberty in
    the wired age.

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