As Halloween draws near, it seems appropriate to think of scary stories. Human history is filled with such tales, and increasingly our command of science has allowed us to create technology that can add to our collection.
VeriChip. Some of the scariest of stories have to do with invasions of privacy. High on the list of new scary technologies is the implantable chip produced by the VeriChip Corporation. The VeriChip is a radio frequency identification microchip about the size of a grain of rice. It can be implanted just under the skin of your arm. When scanned by a VeriChip reader, VeriChip emits a radio frequency signal that contains an electronic identification code that is unique to its human carrier.
The chip can be used for a wide range of identification purposes, such as accessing medical records or allowing access to high security areas. It can help rescue workers identify bodies in the event of a disaster, such as the Sept. 11 attacks or Hurricane Katrina. Some hospitals have approved the chip because it helps staff retrieve medical records for those patients who, for whatever reason, are unable to communicate, such as Alzheimer’s patients, stroke victims, epileptics or those who can’t remember their pacemaker number. Those opposed to the implantation of identification chips believe the chip has the potential to be de-humanizing, that it will cause humans to be perceived more as inventory or resources than as beings. There are also fears of identity theft and of the potential for chip switching.
A major opponent of identity chips is an organization called CASPIAN, or Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering. CASPIAN’s main focus has been against store loyalty cards. They believe that store loyalty cards are thinly veiled registration and monitoring programs. They argue that when a customer submits his or her identification in order to receive a numbered card, that person is being registered. When the card is used to track a person’s activities or purchases, the person is being monitored. A further point of contention is that law enforcement can gain access to this information. As popularity of these cards rises, the end of anonymous shopping grows near.
Tracking devices can also be implanted into consumer products such as clothes, household items and packaging. This practice is primarily meant for inventory management, but what other applications might it have? For more information and a list of over 100 companies that sponsored this technology’s development, visit http://www.spychips.com.
Project Echelon. The U.S. National Security Agency’s Project Echelon is another technology use that is illustrative of the paradoxes we must confront in the struggle between our competing values of national security and our right to privacy. Project Echelon is a global surveillance system that electronically scans all internet traffic, cell phone conversations, long-distance phone calls and faxes for key words that may be indicators of terrorist threats or criminal activity. Echelon is believed to be able to filter two million “message inputs" per minute.
The U.S. Justice Department’s request last spring for internet search records from Google, AOL and other search engines made many aware that information is being kept on internet users and their searches. This information raised other questions such as: how long are these records kept, how can all of this information be filtered and sorted, where is this information stored, etc. While the Justice Department’s request for information was for a good cause, the fight against child pornography, how do we know that the next time information is requested, our privacy will not be violated? Trust?
Botnets. Viruses and worms taking control of your computer, implanting bad cookies and stealing your keystrokes seems like a fact of life during the Information Age. Currently, there is a battle against botnets. A botnet is formed when a number of connected computers are taken over by a virus or worm. Software is then implanted into the infected computer that enables an unknown attacker (aka bot herder) to have remote access. Botnets are used to spread spam, attack service and log keystrokes in order to gain bank information or steal identities.
Some technologies imply by their intended uses that we have scary stories. The need for implanted chips implies a chance that we could become one of a mass of disfigured, unidentifiable bodies lost amidst a pile of other disfigured, unidentifiable bodies. It also implies that we, as hospital patients might, at some time, face a situation where we are only known to another human being by the use of a scanner. Loyalty cards in exchange for private information implies that strangers would like to know much more about us. The fact that money and manpower are allocated to filter billions of electronic communications implies that we are in grave danger. The need for viral software implies that thieves are always looking for a chance to attack, causing us to wonder just how secure our identities and bank accounts are. In the end, we have choices to make, although sometimes those choices seem, unfortunately, to be between privacy and security. Which are you willing to give up? It is possible to lose both?