Friday, May 27, 2005

x-ray vision coming to airport security near you

OK, I usually try to keep it toned down around here, but let me just say that the Department of Homeland Security has now officially flipped its wig. From the New York Times via Slashdot: the DHS intends to deploy scanners in airports that can see through clothes. You remember that scene from Airplane II where people are going through security, and then the camera pans around and the screeners are getting a peep show? Yep, that's what this stuff does, except in black-and-white instead of color. And with averge people like you and me instead of a constant stream of hot bodies.

It may be that we're coming to the end of an era, that privacy is going away. Science fiction author David Brin argues that a universal lack of privacy is a good thing because it's an equalizer: if there is no privacy, then all citizens are on an equal footing. I'm not convinced. Brin's argument seems to rely on an assumption that transparency applies equally to everyone, but we've regularly seen examples throughout history where people who have more money or power get privileges that people with less money or power don't: after all, that's one of the main reasons people bother to acquire money and power beyond their basic needs. I don't see any reason why a "transparent society" should be any different. There may be cameras on all the streetcorners, as Brin suggests, but they're not going to be in every room of the Whitehouse. Future Presidents are well aware of the role the Nixon tapes played in the Watergate scandal. They're not going to repeat that mistake if they can help it. And cameras around the city might be able to track my shopping habits, but do you think they could track Bill Gates'? How much of his own shopping to you suspect Bill Gates does?

In any case, let's hope we get some balance eventually. There is often a trade-off between security and liberty. If you want perfect security, you're probably looking at zero liberty. The sooner we realize that fact, the sooner we can make some intelligent decisions.

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