Anonymity is under attack

A long time ago, you were who you said you were. When societies formed, you were who the people that knew you said you were. Then, as commerce spread beyond the reach of person to person communication, you were your signature. Today you are all that plus your identification. ID, the stuff that links who you are to records in other peoples lists. Lists, databases, records, files, statements, the stuff of the information age. Today, you are what you’ve done; your credit history, your employment history, your tax records, your driving record, your criminal record, and other bits of information all tell the story of your life. No matter who you would like others to believe you are, the truth is out there. Being anonymous, hiding from this truth means not giving out your last name, not showing your ID.

New technology will put this anonymity under attack. Iris scanning, voice and face recognition software, and DNA testing, will inexorably link the person to the record. Some banks are already planning on using iris scans for access to bank machines; look at the camera and it will give you access to your money. So much for letting your deadbeat brother use your spare bank account. Voice printing can be used to link telephone calls; If you call a company for help twice, they will link the calls together. If you were rude the first time then you’ll probably wind up on hold for a very long time. Face recognition software is new and extremely powerful. We’re already used to security cameras; soon they will be able to link each face that walks by. Imagine this setup in a car dealership. You’ve decided what you want to buy but figure you’d get a better price if they didn’t know you were so keen. You drive to the dealership in the next town and walk in. Their computer system, being cross-linked to a nation wide database, recognizes who you are and alerts the salespeople to what you’re interested in, how much the last offer was, maybe even how much money you have and how old your current vehicle is. So much for pretending disinterest. DNA testing is in the news every week with stories about how it solved twenty year old crimes or about the controversies surrounding the ethics of sampling. The more successful civil libertarians are at preventing groups of people from being sampled, the more information the authorities will collect from each sample they can take. Remember that DNA is also used to resolve paternity suits and show inter-relatedness. There's a lot of information in a strand of hair. You may never have been sampled but your cousin might have; if you leave your DNA at the scene of a crime, they will know you’re related.

Like it or not, the people you deal with in your life will know who you are. They will know what you’ve done and they will treat you accordingly. This is the inevitable result of the information revolution and, like it or not, we're all going to live with the results. If we force government to not use this technology then we’ve just left the power to the corporations. If we pass laws to prevent corporate use then we leave the technology to the criminals. We could wear dark sunglasses, face masks, disguise our voice, and somehow mask our DNA to avoid recognition but we won’t. We’ll learn to live with the lose of anonymity like we adapted to ID cards. Perhaps, in the long run, it will be better. After all, what’s wrong with living with the consequences of your actions?

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