Personal Space Invaders: The top science-and-tech privacy threats of 2007

Slate | Dec. 27, 2007

By William Saletan

It’s been another big year for scientific and technological encroachments on individual privacy. For good or ill, governments and businesses are finding new ways to enter what used to be considered personal space. Here are this year’s top 10 highlights.

1. Surveillance cameras. They’re everywhere. Britain has more than 4 million; France has more than 300,000 and is aiming for 1 million; China is building a network of 200,000. New York City wants a few hundred more to enforce traffic fees. Responding to civil libertarian complaints, New York’s mayor points out that the city’s cameras are nothing compared with the thousands of private security cameras already infesting Manhattan. Meanwhile, the technology is becoming more sophisticated. China’s cameras “will soon be guided by software … to recognize automatically the faces of police suspects and detect unusual activity.” France plans to do some of its surveillance through aerial drones. Britain is installing loudspeakers in its cameras so operators can scold you for littering, fighting, or vandalism.

2. The war on smoking. Tobacco prohibition is moving steadily indoors. Propelled by evidence of harm from passive smoke, Arkansas, Louisiana, and local governments from Maine to New York have banned smoking in cars when minors are present. The original argument for such bans was that kids, unlike adults, can’t get out of the car. Lately, however, banners have added the argument that smoking distracts the driver. This argument doesn’t require any kids in the car, and indeed, the high court of New Delhi, India, has banned smoking while driving, period. Vermont, Germany, and Ireland have considered similar crackdowns. Meanwhile, smoking has been banned in thousands of apartment complexes, based on arguments that 1) smoke bleeds into neighboring units no matter what you do, 2) it’s bad for your neighbors’ health, and 3) smokers’ apartments cost more to clean after they move out. Now the movement is invading smokers’ bodies: Doctors are promoting a “pulse cooximeter” that attaches to your finger and measures the percentage of carbon monoxide in your blood. Proposed uses include “screening smoking status in [high schools] and the workplace.” (Related: Human Nature’s critique of the war on smoking.)

3. The war on junk food. On the heels of New York’s trans-fat ban, Los Angeles cut a deal with local restaurants to eliminate trans fats in 18 months. Los Angeles also considered a two-year ban on new fast-food restaurants in parts of the city, as Berkeley and other jurisdictions have done. Malaysia considered a ban on fast-food ads and a “sin tax” on fast food, and San Francisco’s mayor has just proposed a fee on sellers of sugary drinks. Proponents of regulation compare junk food to cigarettes: an unhealthy, deliberately addictive product systematically marketed to people in neighborhoods with few other food options. Opponents reply that people buy fast food because it’s tasty, affordable, and convenient. Increasingly, the debate turns on the argument that unhealthy food raises medical expenses for everyone, thereby trumping appeals to personal choice. However, new research suggests that the most common replacement for trans fats—”interesterified fats”—may be just as unhealthy. (Related: The unfolding battle plan against junk food.)

4. The war on salt. In December, the FDA held a hearing to consider regulating salt as a food additive instead of the current policy of declaring it “generally recognized as safe.” Possible outcomes of this effort include “federal limits on the salt content of processed foods.” Proponents of regulation argue that Americans eat about 50 percent more sodium than the recommended limit and that by cutting back, we can save lives and lower health-care costs. They add that we can also reduce obesity, since people drink soda or beer with salty food. Their clincher argument is that this isn’t really a freedom issue, since producers package salt into your food instead of letting you choose your own level. The food industry replies that it’s already lowering salt content voluntarily and that consumers don’t buy products advertised as low-salt. (Related: This looks like a replay of the early campaigns to restrict fat and sugar.)

5. Pedestrian cell-phone use. Many states and cities have restricted phone use while driving. This year, a New York legislator took the next step: proposing to ban use of cell phones, iPods, and BlackBerrys while crossing the street. The bill declared that: 1) it would be a crime to “enter and cross a crosswalk while engaging in the use of an electronic device” and 2) “a user of an electronic device who holds such device to, or in the immediate proximity of his or her ear, is presumed to be engaging in the use of said device.” The proposed fine was $100. Proponents argue that such legislation will protect drivers as well as pedestrians, and that “it is impossible to be fully aware of one’s own surroundings when occupied in using an electronic device.” Critics, in turn, ask why, in that case, it should be legal to engage in other distractions, such as walking while reading a newspaper, or operating your car stereo (or, dare we say, your police radio) while driving. (Disclaimer: Human Nature is an incorrigible reader-while-walking.)

6. Naked body scanners. In February, the U.S. government began screening airline passengers with a scanner that sees through clothing. The scanner uses low-energy X-rays to generate an image of your body outline and any items you’re carrying, including liquid and plastic explosives, which evade metal detectors. This was followed in October by plans for a new scanner that does the same thing with virtually no radiation. The government insists the scans are no big deal because 1) you won’t be scanned unless you’re selected for extra screening, 2) the scans don’t really show your naughty bits, 3) they blur your face so nobody can link your identity to the image, 4) the viewing machine is separated from the screening area, so the viewing officer can’t see who you are, and 5) a virtual search is less invasive than the current alternative: a manual pat-down. Human Nature’s advice: Let them see you naked, as long as they can’t see your face. (Related: The bomb-hiding arms race between terrorists and airport screeners.)

7. Phone-surveillance ads. If you thought terrorist-hunters were the people most interested in your phone conversations, think again. A company has begun tailoring ads to monitored phone calls. The offer: Advertisers subsidize your (Internet-based) calls by paying for ads on your computer screen during the conversation. The catch: The ads you get are determined by voice-recognition software that monitors your conversation and shows you products related to it. The company argues that 1) the software ignores naughty words, 2) it doesn’t keep records of what you said, and 3) it’s no different from Google’s practice of scanning your e-mail box and tailoring ads to the topics it finds there. Civil libertarians worry that tech-industry intrusions have become so common that we’ve lost our expectation of privacy. Businesses agree—and cite that as a reason to plow ahead.

8. Human chip implants. Radio-frequency identification chips were initially implanted in consumer goods and animals for commercial tracking. Now they’re coming to humans. The FDA has approved a chip for people to encode your medical history so doctors can call it up if you can’t speak. A company has required some of its workers to accept chip implants. Several Mexican officials were chip-implanted for access to restricted premises. In China, the government is requiring chip-implanted identity cards that show your religion and “reproductive history” (to facilitate enforcement of the country’s one-child policy). All told, at least 2,000 people have been implanted. Implant proponents argue that if you let people wear the chips externally, on ID cards or badges, they can be transferred, thereby thwarting surveillance. The electronics industry is opposing further regulation of chip implants, on the grounds that “subcutaneous chips are highly useful” in people with Alzheimer’s or diabetes. However, at least three states now ban obligatory implantation of chips in people.

9. Mind-reading. Scientists in Germany reported this year that they’ve used pattern recognition software to predict, from functional magnetic resonance imaging of people’s brains, whether each person had secretly decided to add or subtract two numbers he was looking at. The computer correctly predicted the decision 71 percent of the time. The advertised application of this technology is computers that can discern and execute your will when you want them to—for example, if you’re paralyzed or don’t want to use a mouse. But civil libertarians worry that the next application will be mental surveillance. (Related: Welcome to the era of full-mental nudity.)

10. Manipulating sexual orientation. Research indicates that 7 percent to 10 percent of rams are gay and that brain biology is involved. The livestock industry wants to use this knowledge to identify gay or asexual rams, “thus eliminating their use for general breeding purposes.” Critics worry that it will eventually be used to identify gay human fetuses, possibly leading parents to abort them or alter their orientation through hormone treatment in the womb. Some conservative Christian leaders have already endorsed the idea of fetal alteration. Subsequent research in worms and fruit flies has shown that drugs can “turn homosexual behavior on and off in a period of hours.” The scientist behind the fruit-fly experiment predicts that we’ll eventually learn to do the same in humans. (Related: Gay sheep and the biology of homosexuality.)

One response to “Personal Space Invaders: The top science-and-tech privacy threats of 2007

  1. I’m inclined to agree with you on 1 – 9. You say ” For good or ill, governments and businesses are finding new ways to enter what used to be considered personal space.” I’m not sure what country you live in but i know of no democratic government that, atleast a western one, that endorses making homosexuality a crime. If 10 does become possible that won’t be the governments decision but the parents of the potential child. Since most of these countries already allow abortion for ANY reason its’ going to be kinda hard to say ANY reason but homosexuality.

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