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net.wars: Computers, Freedom, and Privacy XVI

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 05 May 2006


"Everyone seems depressed," someone said a half-day into this year's Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conference. It's true. Databases are everywhere this year. FEMA databases made of records from physicians, pharmacists, insurers. The databases we used to call the electoral rolls. Choicepoint. The National Health infrastructure they want to build. Real ID. RFID tracks and trails – coming soon to a database near you. And so on.

Wendy M Grossman

The only really positive moment is when Senator Leahy (Democrat – VT) bounds in to deliver a keynote, saying that the society we are creating is "a different US society than the one we know". He ringingly denounces the claim that voting for the resolution to pursue Al-Qaeda included voting for warrantless wiretapping, and everyone applauds.

Wait. CFP is being bucked up by a senator? Ten years ago, this conference thought it could code its way out of anything. PGP and Internet architecture could beat any lawmaker.

Now, someone says, "The governments are moving in in a big way" and there is a sense that the only hope lies in policy-making and persuasion. Privacy advocates are brainstorming legislative proposals. The Electronic Frontier Foundation is opening an office in DC.

Even the government types are depressed. Stewart Baker, who in 1994 baited this group by claiming that opposition to key escrow was coming only from those who couldn't go to Woodstock because they had to finish their maths homework, is now at the Department of Homeland Security, and tells us that in an emergency we should save ourselves.

Actually, that was one of the few moments of levity. What he did was ask how many libertarians were there in the room who believed that a government governs best that governs least. About ten percent of the crowd raised their hands (another major change from minus ten years, when at least half would have done so). How many actually had provisions of food and water for 72 hours? Most hands dropped. "Who," Baker asked, "are you expecting to save you?" Gotcha.

The science fiction writer Vernor Vinge [above, right], who's been wandering the conference to sample the zeitgeist preparatory to delivering his wrap-up late Friday, summed it up in an advance sample.

"The angle that's somewhat discouraging," he says, "is the sense I have in many of these issues that they do reflect an almost implacable advance and on many different fronts on the part of the government in support of the fundamental government idea that total information awareness (no trademark) is absolutely essential to the national interest. I see that as clearly and explicitly recognised by the government as essential to national security, so that in the long run opposing it is at best a matter of slowing its advance down and at worst giving it the appearance of slowing its advance down."

Vinge was last at CFP in 1996, when he, Bruce Sterling, and Pat Cadigan all participated in a panel called "We Know Where You Will Live". I remember it as one of the best CFP panels, ever. It was, to be sure, somewhat gloomy. I remember, for example, predictions that a supermarket might know what foods you had been eating from your sales records and, in cahoots with your medical insurer, order you off the potato chips and onto the celery sticks. But being able to imagine this dysfunctional future gave the sense that we would be able to avert it. And without, as one prominent CFPer has done since last year, moving to Canada.

This year, Katherine Albrecht, the leading campaigner against RFID tags and their prospective use to tag and track goods and people, presented her latest findings. Some of her scenarios are far-fetched enough to be truly lame (for example, the idea that someone could sit next to you in a plane and scan your bag so they could steal exactly what they wanted while you were in the lavatory) and others are too clearly chosen to try to manipulate emotional hot buttons (such as the idea that someone passing on the street could point a cellphone reader at a woman and be able to tell what model and colour bra she was wearing; I mean, so what?). But the tracking, storing, and eventually sharing of data are all logical consequences of the infrastructure her research shows they are building. I'm not convinced we will go there. But the possibility is no longer outlandish enough for me to feel empowered by considering it any more.

"We haven't," a privacy activist now in the corporate sector said to me over dinner, "had one single success. It's just a long list of failures."

It is the health care situation that is particularly depressing. The UK has its flaws, but one benefit of nationalised health care is a real reduction in the number of people and organisations who are intensely interested in your medical records. In the US, it seems as though everyone is lining up hoping to get a glimpse of what might be wrong with you.

In one panel we learn that medical identity theft is one of the biggest and fastest growing problems. Now, I wouldn't mind that so much if they'd take my ailments, too. Such as this growing sensation of being surrounded, spied upon, watched by cameras…

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).