You wake to the sound of a ringing telephone–but how could that happen? Several months ago, you reprogrammed your home telephone system so it would never ring before the civilized hour of 8 am. But it’s barely 6:45. Who was able to bypass your phone’s programming?
You pick up the receiver, then slam it down a moment later. It’s one of those marketing machines playing a recorded message. What’s troubling you now is how this call got past the filters you set up. Later on you’ll discover how: The company that sold you the phone created an undocumented “back door”; last week, the phone codes were sold in an online auction.
Now that you’re awake, you decide to go through yesterday’s mail. There’s a letter from the neighborhood hospital you visited last month. “We’re pleased that our emergency room could serve you in your time of need,” the letter begins. “As you know, our fees (based on our agreement with your HMO) do not cover the cost of treatment. To make up the difference, a number of hospitals have started selling patient records to medical researchers and consumer-marketing firms. Rather than mimic this distasteful behavior, we have decided to ask you to help us make up the difference. We are recommending a tax-deductible contribution of $275 to help defray the cost of your visit.”
The veiled threat isn’t empty, but you decide you don’t really care who finds out about your sprained wrist. You fold the letter in half and drop it into your shredder. Also into the shredder goes a trio of low-interest credit-card offers. Why a shredder? A few years ago you would never have thought of shredding your junk mail–until a friend in your apartment complex had his identity “stolen” by the building’s superintendent. As best as anybody can figure out, the super picked one of those preapproved credit-card applications out of the trash, called the toll-free number and picked up the card when it was delivered. He’s in Mexico now, with a lot of expensive clothing and electronics, all at your friend’s expense.
On that cheery note, you grab your bag and head out the door, which automatically locks behind you.
This is the future–not a far-off future but one that’s just around the corner. It’s a future in which what little privacy we now have will be gone. Some people call this loss of privacy “Orwellian,” harking back to 1984, George Orwell’s classic work on privacy and autonomy. In that book, Orwell imagined a future in which a totalitarian state used spies, video surveillance, historical revisionism and control over the media to maintain its power. But the age of monolithic state control is over. The future we’re rushing toward isn’t one in which our every move is watched and recorded by some all-knowing Big Brother. It is instead a future of a hundred kid brothers who constantly watch and interrupt our daily lives. Orwell thought the Communist system represented the ultimate threat to individual liberty. Over the next fifty years, we will see new kinds of threats to privacy that find their roots not in Communism but in capitalism, the free market, advanced technology and the unbridled exchange of electronic information.