A Skin Deep Big Brother Proposal


Each week on the BBC a "global thinker from the worlds of philosophy, science, psychology or the arts is given a minute to put forward a radical, inspiring or controversial idea." This week's idea comes from the science fiction writer Elizabeth Moon. Her proposal is that everyone be implanted with a chip at birth that would provide a fast and inexpensive way to identify people. Ms. Moon cites a reduction in friendly fire incidents during war and crime investigations as some of the benefits of such a system.

While the proposed system is almost self evidently insane, what is especially worrying is Ms. Moon's justification for such a system. Ms. Moon argues that governments already surveille us using numerous methods. Why should our skin be a barrier of entry to government when it already wiretaps phones and installs surveillance cameras? Although Ms. Moon might not have realized it, she is providing a perfect example of why government-backed surveillance measures need to be opposed more vehemently.

A proposal such as the one discussed would only be given time by an international news organization if some level of government intrusion were not already accepted. While the U.S. does not have mandatory ID cards the government still regulates forms of identification that we use every day such as driving licenses. Every single tweet and facebook posting is stored in the Library of Congress, and other online communications are easily accessed by government agencies. 

What is constantly overlooked is how powerful a tool these sorts of proposed measures would be in the hands of a more oppressive government. In times like these, when external threats such as fundamentalist Islam seem to pose a greater threat than our government, people become more willing to sacrifice privacy for security. However, once the war on terror is over (most likely abandoned), the legislation and measures put in place by successive administrations will not disappear. It is hard to imagine governments in the future resisting the urge to use some of these intrusive tools at their disposal.

The abolition of privacy is a problem libertarians will increasingly have to deal with. Developments in fields such as nanotechnology, in particular, require some sort of response, societal or legislative. David Friedman addressed the issue in Future Imperfect (free here). Whatever the response is going to be as privacy-destroying technology develops further, we must not forget to act against the powers already at the government's disposal.