right to privacy?

You don't have to look very far these days to find a discussion of the new digital age. Everyone seems to be talking about it, as technology makes it easier to gather and share information about citizens and governments and companies keep coming up with new and better reasons for gathering and sharing that information.

Some of the main reasons listed for gathering info are:

  • terrorism — since the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001 the US government has gathered more and more info about people in what they claim is an effort to secure their country against further terror attacks. This includes monitoring of communications, finances and travel of a very wide range of people inside and outside the United States.
  • crime — Britons are more familiar with this than most as closed circuit cameras have become a well-established fact of UK cities. The supposed reason for these cameras is to record criminal acts and so make it easier for the authorities to capture the criminals and deter future criminal acts. Recently several European countries have started going beyond this to include monitoring of internet usage and telecommunications, with the argument that this will make it easier to catch child pornographers, people engaged in illegal filesharing, and so on.
  • marketing — corporations love to gather information about us, where we live, what we like, etc., always with the argument that this will make it possible for them to offer consumers targeted information which makes it easier for us to find and buy the products and services we need.

Here in Norway we have an additional quirk: every citizens taxable income is posted on a public website; this allows everyone in the world to go to the appropriate website and look up how much a given Norwegian claimed as taxable income the previous fiscal year. This is ostensibly to further the social democratic goal of creating a transparent and classless society where it is impossible to have hidden wealth.

This is all well and good. Everyone who watches crime dramas on television is used to the idea of the police using some technology — be it cctv, phone records, email tracking, etc. — to capture the wrongdoer before the credits roll. Often the crime committed is so heinous that we in the audience desperately want the perpetrator caught at all costs and do not question the methods.

We do not question airlines when they want a fingerprint or other biometric data in order to track our movements and ensure our identities.

And, indeed, why would we guestion the methods? Do we not want the authorities to use all available methods to catch pedophiles and child pornographers? And certainly we want to know that our governments are doing everything possible to prevent terrorist attacks near our homes. Right?

But by enabling monitoring of all movements and communications we are creating a society where everyone is a suspect. Instead of walking the streets and assuming that everyone around is harmless we begin to look over our shoulders and suspect everyone. We replace trust with fear — and the more surveillance technology and techniques we use the more afraid we become.

A society based on fear and suspicion. Is this really what we want?

Kristiansund, 4. april 2008 09.43

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