This prospect—what science fiction writer David Brin calls “the transparent society”—may sound too distant to be worth thinking about. But even the far-sighted Brin underestimated how quickly technological advances—more powerful microprocessors, faster network transmissions, larger hard drives, cheaper electronics, and more sophisticated and powerful software—would make universal surveillance possible.
It’s not all about Big Brother or Big Business, either. Widespread electronic scrutiny is usually denounced as a creation of political tyranny or corporate greed. But the rise of omnipresent surveillance will be driven as much by ordinary citizens’ understandable—even laudatory—desires for security, control, and comfort as by the imperatives of business and government. “Nanny cams,” global-positioning locators, police and home security networks, traffic jam monitors,medical-device radio-frequency tags, small-business webcams: the list of monitoring devices employed by and for average Americans is already long, and it will only become longer. Extensive surveillance, in short, is coming into being because people like and want it.
“Almost all of the pieces for a surveillance society are already here,” says Gene Spafford, director of Purdue University’s Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security.”It’s just a matter of assembling them.” Unfortunately, he says, ubiquitous surveillance faces intractable social and technological problems that could well reduce its usefulness or even make it dangerous.As a result, each type of monitoring may be beneficial in itself, at least for the people who put it in place, but the collective result could be calamitous.
To begin with, surveillance data from multiple sources are being combined into large databases. For example, businesses track employees’ car, computer, and telephone use to evaluate their job performance; similarly, the U.S. Defense Department’s experimental Total Information Awareness project has announced plans to sift through information about millions of people to find data that identify criminals and terrorists.
But many of these merged pools of data are less reliable than small-scale, localized monitoring efforts; big databases are harder to comb for bad entries, and their conclusions are far more difficult to verify. In addition, the inescapable nature of surveillance can itself create alarm, even among its beneficiaries. “Your little camera network may seem like a good idea to you,” Spafford says. “Living with everyone else’s could be a nightmare.”