5/19/2005

the REAL thing

This post isn't about Coca-Cola directly, but you can bet Coke executives are among those marketers salivating at the chance for the substantially increased data collection and dissemination about to become law through the $82 billion (give or take) in extra money being thrown at Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. It’s classic power politics. How do you pass wildly unpopular legislation? Why, bury it in something very important that no Senator dares vote against, and make sure to have the vote before there is any time for a discussion of the unrelated amendments that would fail as independent legislation.

Voila! Instant national ID card. Now, for those of you interested in facts, the Real ID Act doesn’t technically create a national ID card. All it does is ask states to voluntarily follow Federal guidelines in issuing drivers licenses. Of course, if they don’t, the state’s residents will essentially cease to be American citizens—but that’s not what makes this interesting. There are lots of reasonable people who are and will be raising all the right critiques about states’ rights and religious objections and how any system based on documents that can be forged can’t create an ID that can’t be forged.

Nope, what makes this interesting is how it reveals the transformation we’ve already made of how we view property rights related to personal information. In short, virtually nothing remains that you have the right to prevent someone else from knowing about you. Or if you prefer legalese, few places remain where you have a reasonable expectation of privacy enforceable by the courts (I suppose you could always use an oozie to enforce it). Now, I should be up front that my gut instinct is to err on the side of protecting privacy at virtually all costs. Yet, that vague desire clashes starkly with the reality of even legal, declassified, non-patented information gathering and processing capabilities. So a couple years ago I wrote an essay exploring the seemingly unsustainable expansion of capturing and storing private information. I’m willing to admit that the antidote might be counterintuitive, yet devilishly simple.

This solution wrests on a rather straightforward premise: in a democracy like ours, people who get into positions of power in all the major institutions of society—from corporations to government to universities to churches to the military—tend to have vastly more secrets than the rest of us. So make all information public. All of it. After all, perfect information is one of the prerequisites for an efficiently functioning market. Think of it as statistical privacy. It’s hard for somebody to assault you for your personal deficiency when that person suffers another deficiency that is also public. Instead of having drug users attacking gamblers attacking adulterers, we can all realize nobody’s perfect and move on. Plus, it’d be fun. You pass somebody walking down the street. What’s his IQ? Where does she work? What was the last thing he bought on his credit card? Where did she go to college? No problem, your wireless iPod automatically detects the RFID chip in the person of interest’s clothing/ID cards/skin. And of course, if you want something as quaint as privacy, you can always do without modern conveniences. You know, like driving, flying, buying groceries, and renting an apartment. Don’t even think about going to a bank. The door won’t open if your ID isn’t broadcasting a recognizable signal.

The reason I started this post with Coca-Cola is that no group in society thrives off of mass information like consumer-driven corporations. Sure, the NSA does some of the coolest data collection in the world, but their specialty is more gathering tons ‘o stuff about a few people. Governments aren’t really that good at mass surveillance (at least without the tacit acceptance of the populace); that’s what private enterprise is all about. And what’s their holy grail? A single database containing all information about a person from their residence to medical history to buying habits to physical location that is accessible virtually anywhere—from libraries to bars to airports to police cars to courthouses to coffee shops. That database is the heart of Real ID.

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