Beware the knock on thedoor from the information police

Freedom throughsurveillance has just too much of a Big Brother ring for me
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The Independent Online

IMAGINE A future where youcouldn't get away with anything. Now imagine how liberated you'd feelin that future.

IMAGINE A future where youcouldn't get away with anything. Now imagine how liberated you'd feelin that future.

Imagine that there was a constantly updated recordsomewhere of everything you did, every place you went, all the things youspent money on. Your phone calls, your written missives, your tripsby car or public transport - all that would be there,too.

Then, imagine that anyone could get that information easily andquickly and inexpensively. The Government and the police could get it,major corporations could have it, and criminals could grab it pretty much atwill.

Governments and police could make circumstantial cases againstindividuals and major corporations could identify and market to children andother vulnerable groups. Criminals could hijack the good name and good creditof the law-abiding, and terrorists and others whose agenda was probablynot much fun to contemplate could do even more awful things.

Of course,this is a pretty good approximation of how the world works today. Seeminglyinnocent information about people is used - and misused -daily.

One school of thought holds that the problem isn't that too muchinformation is being gathered, but that not enough is. At leastthat's an idea which has begun to circulate. The theory runs somethinglike this: in a world where everyone's every movement is routinelytracked, it would be difficult for people to get away with antisocialbehaviour. In such a world there would be less need for police; moreresources could be applied to restoring the unfortunates to usefulcitizenship.

Automated routines could spot trends in behaviour before theyresulted in trouble. We wouldn't need police so much as therapists tokeep a lid on things. With the miscreants in check, the world wouldbecome a safer place, and people would devote less time and resources toprotecting themselves from crime and other abuses and would thus have morepersonal freedom.

I have some serious reservations about the theory,though.

For one thing, power corrupts, and knowledge (akainformation) is power. Whenever power is distributed unevenly, abusefollows. Just check that with any of Saddam Hussein's victims or theminions of a few other choice symbols of highly centralised power.

Someinstitutions, like governments and corporations, have a prettyinsurmountable lead in gathering information. For one thing, they havethousands of workers whose only job is to spend their days gathering informationabout fellow citizens, and storing it on giant computer systems where it canbe easily retrieved.

These same institutions also have vast budgets thatallow them to pay the world's most capable computer scientists to writesophisticated software that can assemble seemingly disparate pieces ofinformation into potentially damning profiles.

With data about enoughpeople in hand, correlations emerge that allow for the pegging of aperson's politics, say, or sexual orientation - based on verylittle data indeed.

So, information, and thus power, flows tothose with the most information- gathering resources. An organisationwith a lot of information would have a lot of power and an organisation with allthe information would be all- powerful. If you buy theabsolute-power-corrupts-absolutely argument, this is a bigworry.

Case in point: few doubt that the spook departments of majorgovernments are powerful, and have engaged in misguided abuses of that power- and these people quite literally live and die by information.

Naturetends not to favour large, isolated aggregates of anything. This is whythere tends to be air in every corner of a room - air doesn't naturallyaccrete to some mysterious central power in one corner, leaving a vacuumelsewhere in the room. Well, information tends to behave similarly.The adage "information wants to be free" underscores the tendency ofinformation to spread rapidly in all available directions. Evenly distributedinformation empowers all equally.

Western history is full of examples ofsocial arrangements where wealth and power were not equitably distributed,and life was rough in those times. Few of us, probably, would bewilling to trade our life for that of a feudal serf, for example.

Thusan arrangement that allows the unequal distribution of information is the firststep toward the unequal distribution of other things. Yet the mere gatheringof information isn't illegal - students and researchers do it everyday, and much good has come of that. In any case, it would bedifficult to prevent, even if it were to be outlawed.

The onlyeffective answer in my mind is strong encryption. Encryption should be amillennial right of all humankind. True, big computers can break evenstrong encryption, but there aren't enough big computers to crack everysmall detail of every citizen's life.

Even positing a benevolentinformation guardian, the problem remains that someone would have to defineterms such as "antisocial". Most revolutionary ideas have beenbranded antisocial at some point in their development. Remember peaceprotesters? Freedom marchers? Future software programmes may send thenext Gandhi for corrective therapy.

Freedom through surveillance has justtoo much of a Big Brother ring for me. I imagine a netizen somewhere,e-mailing: "Give me encryption, or give medeath!"