The threat of electronic intrustion into personal privacy is increasing, as one quickly learns in browsing through the technical press. There are threats great and small, direct and indirect, all of them innocent, but all tending toward subtle encroadchment. A few examples, culled from a week's reading:
Europe is trying to standardize coding and technique to make possible an enormous international network of computers for exchange of commercial data - quite useful, but likely to make control of information difficult. The British police use a nationwide network of computers which is said to keep records on political demonstrators, doubtless for genuine reasons of preventing destructive riots.
Data banks are not the obly means of intrusion. Some American companies now use a telephone system that automatically keeps track of who made long-distance calls, to whom, for how long; the employee must dial a personal code to get the long-distance line. A bit more ominous was the European firm that recently tried to require its employees to wear special badges, detectible by sensors around the plant, which allowed a central computer to keep track of them. The workforce sensibly refused.
The potential for abuse grows because the technology improves. The electronics laboratories are in a state of exuberant fertility that is rare and perhaps unmatched in technological history. A variety of technologies from satellites to fiber optics is making possible the control of cast amounts of infomation. The major culprit is the microprocessor, the notorious "chip."
Microporcessors do little that conventional computers don't do, but they do it much cheaper, more reliably and in a small space. A computer that costs millions and occupies 30 cubic feet is too awkward to abuse. When it costs $300 and fits in a shirt pocket, abuse becomes cost-effective. The cost of computing power is falling precipitously, arguably to a point at which it will be like tap water, almost free.
Duncan Campbell of the New Statesman, having studied the British police computers, concluded that the "perspective which emerges is not of fast fact-finding systems to enhance police efficiency, but of determinedly crafted mechanisms for social control." The observation is typical of a school of thought that sees government as vaguely sinster. Campbell sees the danger but probably misunderstands the causes: England's totalitarian tendencies being among the world's most anemic, it is more likely that the police merely want the convenience of quickly getting information. The trouble is that the instruments of administrative convenience are identical to those of electronic oppression and, once employed for good purposes, can imperceptibly be turned to bad.
Libertarians make a tactical mistake in looking for official malice. There is none. None is needed. The normal instinct of government to meddle is quite enough. A government that concerns itself with specifications for toilet seats in factories will, given the means, concern itself with every detail of our lives. We may well find ourselves suffocating in a miasma of intrusive concern, requiring that the bureaucracy know everything about us.
In democratic countries, convenience is the inducement to electronic Big Brotheris, whether by government or by credit-card companies. Intrusion is so very convenient, not just to government and industry but-here's the catch - to those suffering the intrusion. Being able to cash a check quickly in a strange city is a blessing that is hard to refuse, even though it means having credit records in a data bank. For most people, the convenience of receiving a letter electronically in 10 minutes outweighs the probable ease with which it might be diverted to unintended recipients.
From the point of view of commerce, administrative convenience translates directly into competitiveness and impressive numbers of dollars. The practical advantages of data banks and, perhaps, of other forms of electronic surveillance, are so great as to be irresistible: Useful technology is almost always used. To prevent its misuse, we will need carefully drawn legislation, not futile attempts to prevent its adoption. Particularly, people will have to insist that, beyond a point, the right to privacy supercedes administrative convenience. It follows that we should acquire a resistance to the arguments in favor of intrusiveness.
Perhaps the commonest of these, offered at times by police, is that only the guilty have anything to fear. This is too silly to merit discussion. It warrants stationing a policeman in every living room, or rescinding the Bill of Rights. Another is the great fallacy that surrounds the use of computers: that doing something a thousand times more efficiently is not substantially different from doing it the old way. The idea has a specious plausibility. A police computer may contain only information in the public domain, such as court records of lists of unpaid traffic tickets. But when a New York policeman knows at once that an out-of-state speeder is wanted on a jaywalking ticket in Los Angeles, was convicted of homosexual solicitation in Cheyenne in 1961, and was arrested at a civil-rights march in Chicago in 1967, he knows more than is good for anybody.