Saturday, September 12, 2009

What will you do then?

Once upon a time, a scant few decades ago, a person who got into trouble of some sort could opt for a fresh start by moving to a new state or town, and often get a second chance at life.

Those days, that climate, doesn't exist anymore. There are no second chances. These days everything you do (and especially anything errant, because these systems aren't designed to record your contributions to humanity, just the "bad" stuff) is recorded - forever - and it's available for anyone in a position of authority, or merely with access to the system - to see. The cop who just pulled you over can, in a few minutes, learn more about you then you know about you.

I guess that doesn't scare you, because that's the way it is, and if it did scare you, one might reasonably think you'd have done something about it. But because it happened over time, like a slow boil, too few protested and far too few even understand what happened and is happening.

People who are curious read the reports of the massive amounts of data being collected by gov't and industry (which turns around and sells access to this information to the gov't), and they probably agree with pundits who say the sheer amount of information being recorded is so overwhelming that there is no chance anyone could use or make sense of it all in, say, the "war on terrorism" (which greased the path to it's happening), so any effort to do so will be bogged down forever.

But this perspective needs to be turned inside out to understand the real problem.

Don't think about that mountain of information and how impossible it would be to sort it all out, instead see it as a mountain of information with "keys" that can be used to tap information about you, such as your life history up until today. And computers can do this very, very quickly. In just a few seconds, a database of billions or even trillions of records can be searched using keys such as your Social Security number, name and address or other identifiers.

An experience comes to mind: a few years ago I decided to drive into Canada from Maine. At the border I was singled out for questioning, perhaps because I was driving an old camper, but I don't really know. I was asked to reveal my lifetime's arrest history. I said I had never been arrested. The border agent then went to a computer terminal, did a search, and came up with a 30+ year old arrest incident that I had long believed was not on the public record because at the time I had paid a lawyer a good amount of money and the misdemeanor arrest was reduced to a violation, which I believed would not follow me for the rest of my life. It did, and I was denied entry, and I'm probably now blocked for life.

In the years to come, this ability to collect information about us will improve dramatically. Those cameras taking our picture wherever we go will be able to match your face in the picture with your Social Security number, not the mention the trial we leave every time we use a plastic card, make a telephone call, search the Internet, send an email, etc., etc.

There are 2 points to be made here:

The 1st is that whatever "privacy" you think you have today, you don't have.

The 2nd is that if you ever get around to taking a stand against the people aggregating this power over you, all they have to do to destroy you is reach into this database to come up with a list of your own shortcomings, failings, or whatever you may have done that can be "puffed" into attack stories that make you look like the Devil incarnate. This is already standard fare today, just imagine how much more power will be in their hands as this database invariably grows.

So, the question: what will you do then?


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