TCS Daily

Private Parts

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - July 17, 2002 12:00 AM

My earlier column on the benefits of cyborgization led to a thoughtful letter from blogger Susanna Cornett. Cornett wrote that she was fine with the idea of an implantable "body computer" that would keep her healthy, but worried about who else would have access to its data. "I'm not having a Luddite moment here," she said, but

Would it be acceptable for an airline to require that pilots plug in their "body computer" to a master system before flying a plane, to check to see if (s)he has used illegal drugs/alcohol within a certain time span? Or for offenders on parole/probation to do the same? Would this become the "pee in a cup" of the future? Would an employer have the right to all this information as it's downloaded in an executive's annual physical? Would the computer measure things such as frequency of sex, and serve as a basis for divorce/custody proceedings?

Would the federal government add "body computer analysis" to their background checks of employees in various security agencies? Would an insurance company have a right to information from my "body computer" if they are insuring my health, to see if I'm engaging in high risk behaviors (i.e. smoking or excessive Twinkie consumption)? Where would the privacy line be drawn? And how would we be able to control what information a particular entity downloaded from our "computer"?

These are real questions, and I don't have any easy answers. (An auto-erase feature?) Probably the most I can do to provide comfort is to note that the government and insurance companies are monitoring most of this stuff already (er, except for the frequency-of-sex part, as far as I know) and at least this way you'd have access to the data too.

But all these advanced technologies - for which I'm about as big an enthusiast as you're likely to find -- do offer downsides. Sometimes they're minor: you might imagine people a hundred years ago noting all the prescription medicines that modern Americans take and wondering how you could trust strangers to put the right things in all those pills. That hasn't turned out to be much of an issue.

But sometimes they're not so minor: I suspect that there would have been more resistance to, say, supermarket scanners if people had realized how much information about them would be collected.

Then again, maybe not. A faculty discussion at my law school produced the conclusion that most people just don't care all that much about their privacy. One person observed that Victorians, who were ashamed of practically everything, were exquisitely sensitive to questions of privacy. Modern Americans - who in large numbers struggle to get on shows like "Blind Date" or "Jerry Springer" - are apparently ashamed of practically nothing, and thus have less reason to care about privacy.

I'm afraid that the only real answer to protecting liberty and privacy in the face of advanced technology is the same as it's always been: eternal vigilance, coupled with a willingness to act.

If people want implantable computers to keep them healthy, but don't want the government or employers to have access to the data, they'll demand laws that protect them. Unfortunately, the reaction to data-gathering so far suggests that most people don't care as much as we civil-liberties and privacy enthusiasts think they should. That, sadly, isn't a problem that can be cured with technology - or with the lack of it. But if people decide that they want privacy, they'll get it. If they don't care, then they won't.

I hope they decide that they do. For while technologies may change, some truths - like the need for eternal vigilance by those who value freedom - are eternal.



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