Surveillance tools are everywhere. Another device is coming soon to a store near you: software that identifies individual faces in a crowd. Walk through Macy’s one afternoon and you may hear a message telling you your favorite cologne is on sale. And those greeters with their vacuous smiles at the grocery store? They’ll soon be gone, too. In their place will be a robot that knows your shopping habits. “Hello Caroline. A fresh shipment of tofu has just arrived on isle 9.” (“Where Everybody Knows Your Name,” Bloomberg Businessweek, Mary 7-13, 2016, pg. 47.)
Technology, like most of our inventions, is neither good or bad. How we use it makes the difference. Knowing there’s a sale on sport socks may be good to know. But being watched may leave you with the guilty feeling when you pinch the avocadoes.
In a democracy, we like to think we get a say about what happens in our lives. China, on the other hand, makes no pretense of having a democracy. They use surveillance technology to stifle personal expression. From childhood, every citizen has a file created on him or her. It’s called a dang’an and contains school reports, health records, work permits, personal assessments and “other information that might be considered confidential and private in other countries.” (“China Tries Its Hand at pre-Crime,” Bloomberg Businessweek, March 7-13, pg. 45.) Unlike the NSA, China’s agency is so secret, it has no website or published phone number. But it’s eyes are everywhere on a national network called Skynet. (Ibid pg 46.)
China uses the material gathered to rank a citizen’s “trustworthiness.” (Ibid, 45.) As if taking a page from the movie, Minority Report, the government not only watches for terrorist activity but also attempts to predict anti-social behavior. (Ibid pg. 45.)
China’s misuse of technology is a wake-up call for the rest of us. Social networks may seem like benign enterprises, but already Facebook has been slapped with a class action lawsuit for having “secretly amassed the world’s largest privately held database of consumer biometric data.” (Ibid, pg. 48.) A person might not care about surveillance when they purchase cologne or tofu. But collecting that information could seem less benign if it fell into unfriendly hands. Burgeoning technology requires us to constantly assess whether or not convenience is worth the price of our freedom.