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Creepy Functions

From the editor in chief
September 1, 2001

Consider one example of function creep. The Electoral Commission of Uganda has retained Viisage Technology to implement a face recognition system capable of enrolling 10 million voters in 60 days. The goal is to reduce voter registration fraud. But Woodward notes that the system might also be put to work fingering political opponents of the regime. And Uganda probably isn’t the first country that springs to mind when someone says “due process” or “civil rights.”

The central question raised by Amato’s story is: Who will decide which functions of a dramatic new technology are acceptable and which are just too, well, creepy? As Amato’s story and others that have recently appeared in TR suggest, we all need to think carefully about how new technologies are implemented and used. And after we’ve thought about it, we need to do something about it. If we don’t, then the decisions will get made by those with deep pockets and deep vested interests. We need to wake up to these issues soon, because “the technology is developing at the speed of light, but the privacy laws to protect us are back in the Stone Age,” as Barry Steinhardt, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union, put it to Amato.

The same theme surfaces in another story in this issue, “Taming the Web,” by Charles C. Mann. Mann takes on a myth, incubated in the hacker culture, that has now spread to the rest of the world: that the Internet is too big and too anarchic to be controlled. Mann outlines three arguments that have been advanced to support this view: (1) the Net is too international to be controlled, (2) the Net is too interconnected to control and (3) there are just too many hackers for control to be established. In a provocative article, Mann shows that two of these arguments are false and one is irrelevant. There is no doubt, he writes, that the Internet will be controlled. The only question is-by whom?

“Governments are going to set down rules,” Internet-law specialist Justin Hughes at the University of California, Los Angeles, tells us in Mann’s piece, “and if you spend all your time fighting the existence of rules, you won’t have much chance to make sure the rules are good ones.” Those who claim that the Internet is inherently resistant to control have taken themselves out of the process of formulating those rules. In their absence, others, such as corporations and government agencies, will be only too happy to step in.

As these two articles make clear, new technologies are raising critical questions of public policy that must be answered soon. Yet many of these developments are taking place outside the public view-because the technology seems arcane or because its impact hasn’t been grasped by the public. By bringing the impact of emerging technologies into the spotlight, Technology Review intends to change all that. Cutting-edge technology is no longer an exotic realm where experts rule. It affects us all, and we all need to step up and take responsibility for how it’s used.

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