Privacy Debate Misses the Point

Opinion: Tech innovations play an ambiguous role in the conflict between privacy and national security.

With the debate over renewal of the Patriot Act and talk of turning drivers licenses into national ID cards, the privacy issues long familiar to the tech community are headed for political center stage.

"There is a lot of movement on privacy, says Ari Schwartz, associate director of the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington, D.C. "It will be breaking out in the next three months."

In some respects, it feels like nothing has changed in the five years since Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy made headlines when he told an audience to "get over" the fact that they had no privacy online. Privacy advocates were outraged. Tech folks shrugged.

As head of a company whose business is devoted to increasing the power of computer networks, McNealy was saying what he knew to be true: Average Americans have given up a great deal of privacy in exchange for some conveniences like credit cards, ATMs and frequent flyer miles.

Its nice to get upgrades on hotels or airplane seats and to be able to get cash at 3 a.m. in a foreign country. But not many people realize that these perks are based on credit ratings or prior purchases whose details are stored in a computer network.

Whats perhaps more surprising is the recent talk of a creating a national identification card. That idea was floated immediately after the World Trade Center bombings by Oracle CEO Larry Ellison and, like McNealys comment, was quickly slapped down by privacy advocates. Now the idea is part of the conversation about giving drivers licenses to illegal immigrants. And it also pops up in talk about the need to streamline airport security while making it easier to come and go from this country.

All of this, of course, takes place against a backdrop of continued worries about national security and the need to protect Americans from terrorist attacks. The idea that networks can reveal information that might help law enforcement is an attractive one for those hoping to prevent more violence and bloodshed. But for many the idea of using technology to learn more about people—without their knowledge—calls up scary science fiction scenarios. The danger on both sides, as anyone who knows networks can tell you, is very real.

Law enforcement wants the best technology possible and they want it immediately. They see the need as urgent, and in some cases, theyre believing vendor hype. Right now, for instance, theres a lot of talk about using biometrics—fingerprints or retinal scans—to make certain that an identification card is legitimate. Theres not much talk, however, about the fact that ordinary drivers licenses are forged using good old-fashioned bribery.

"People arent talking about how to make the system work well," Schwartz observes. "Theyre trying to make it work perfectly." And even a well-designed system wont catch every crook or dismiss every innocent. "Its hard to separate all these things out," says Schwartz.

Privacy advocates, of course, see the failings of the system as proof that it can and will be misused. So rather than talk about creating safeguards—in how the technology is used, not just in how it is created—they want to call a halt to things that have already happened.

Thats a symptom of the real problem here. Many of those involved in the issues dont understand how finely meshed computer networks and the data they hold have become.

They want perfect searches of reliable databases, not realizing that that sort of perfection—without the proper safeguards—is a step closer to the all-knowing network of their science fiction nightmares. And they are disturbed when tech experts and CEOs like Ellison and McNealy are dismissive of attempts to—as they see it—put genies back in bottles.

No ones happy because no ones really talking about whats wrong or what could be better. Theyre too busy blaming tech innovations for sins or praising the potential for miracle solutions. But its not the increasing reliance on technology thats at fault here. Whats really at fault is the belief that technology is perfectly good or completely bad. Technology and Politics columnist Chris Nolan spent years chronicling the excesses of the dot-com era with incisive analysis leavened with a dash of humor. Before that, she covered politics and technology in D.C. You can read her musings on politics and technology every day in her Politics from Left to Right Weblog.


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