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Yet none of these concerns will stop the growth of surveillance, says Ben Shneiderman, a computer scientist at the University of Maryland.Its potential benefits are simply too large. An example is what Shneiderman, in his recent book Leonardo’s Laptop: Human Needs and the New Computing Technologies, calls the World Wide Med: a global, unified database that makes every patient’s complete medical history instantly available to doctors through the Internet,replacing today’s scattered sheaves of paper records.”The idea,”he says, “is that if you’re brought to an ER anywhere in the world, your medical records pop up in 30 seconds.” Similar programs are already coming into existence. Backed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a team based at Harvard Medical School is planning to monitor the records of 20 million walk-in hospital patients throughout the United States for clusters of symptoms associated with bioterror agents.Given the huge number of lost or confused medical records, the benefits of such plans are clear. But because doctors would be continually adding information to medical histories,the system would be monitoring patients’ most intimate personal data.The network, therefore, threatens to violate patient confidentiality on a global scale.

In Shneiderman’s view, such trade-offs are inherent to surveillance. The collective by-product of thousands of unexceptionable,even praiseworthy efforts to gather data could be something nobody wants: the demise of privacy.”These networks are growing much faster than people realize,” he says.”We need to pay attention to what we’re doing right now.”

In The Conversation, surveillance expert Harry Caul is forced to confront the trade-offs of his profession directly. The conversation in Union Square provides information that he uses to try to stop a murder. Unfortunately, his faulty interpretation of its meaning prevents him from averting tragedy. Worse still, we see in scene after scene that even the expert snoop is unable to avoid being monitored and recorded.At the movie’s intense, almost wordless climax, Caul rips his home apart in a futile effort to find the electronic bugs that are hounding him.

The Conversation foreshadowed a view now taken by many experts: surveillance cannot be stopped.There is no possibility of “opting out.” The question instead is how to use technology, policy, and shared societal values to guide the spread of surveillance—by the government, by corporations, and perhaps most of all by our own unwitting and enthusiastic participation—while limiting its downside.

Click here for part II.

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