7.11.2005

 

The end of anonymity

Thinking about the London subway bombings last week, it seems like one thing is certain. In just a few years, after one or two more incidents like this, we are very likely to see the end of anonymity in human society.

What happened on Thursday is that several people walked with complete anonymity into several subway stations. They planted their bombs invisibly and then either left the scene or remained to be detonated. We have no idea who they were, where they came from, who they associated with or where they went if they left the scene.

We consider anonymity like this to be completely normal today. And we see the effects of this anonymity constantly, simply by reading the paper or watching the news. Anonymity gives criminals a huge advantage. The O.J. Simpson case and its "trial of the century" brought this point home with a big splash 10 years ago. On June 12, 1994, two people died in a brutal murder and no one can conclusively prove who did it. We have no idea who was on the street near Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman at the time of the murder, or where O.J. Simpson was that night.

The O.J. case is one end of the spectrum – a gigantic murder mystery. At the other end are tiny crimes that happen anonymously everyday. For example, one of my neighbors found the envelope of a credit card bill torn open and lying on the grass near his mailbox last week. He has no idea who did it, and therefore had to cancel all of his credit cards that afternoon.

It would be relatively easy to eliminate anonymity today, and that is why its end is near. All that we need is a way to read biometric information (thumbprint, iris, whatever) whenever a person enters and leaves an area like a subway station. This might be done very simply with thumbprint-reading turnstiles. This type of identity gathering will occur at the entrance to every subway station, building, airport, mall, campus, park, stadium, etc. In addition, the identity of every car will be tracked as it moves around.

That will be the first level of the net. With these simple measures, we would know the identity of everyone who entered the subway stations on Thursday. That data would make it easy to discover the identity of the London terrorists in just a few days.

Then the net will tighten. Once it is known who is entering each facility, it will be possible to use cameras to track each person's motion and identify their exact location on a moment by moment basis. If Person X stops to talk to Person Y, that will be known. So will all of Person X's and Person Y's phone calls, email messages, package deliveries, purchases, etc. No longer will email messages and spam arrive with anonymity – we will know exactly who sent them, and so will "the authorities". That means that once the criminals are caught, all of their associates will be caught as well. Entire terrorist cells will be rooted out quite easily once anonymity disappears.

Is this good or bad? It doesn't really matter – it is inevitable. Anonymity is simply an artifact of our non-technological past. The only reason we have anonymity today is because, in the past, it would have been too expensive and too onerous to eliminate it. Today we can use technology to eliminate anonymity at low cost and with only small inconvenience. We will gladly deploy the technology to eliminate everything from petty theft to global terrorism. Given a choice between "anonymity" and "the potential to have a city blown up by terrorists", we will choose to lose our anonymity.

Once anonymity is gone, it is very likely that we will eliminate crime as we know it today. That will be a very good thing. According to this page, in the year 2000 in the United States there were:In 20 years, people will look back at the level of crime and terrorism that we endure today with a certain horror, in the same way that we look back in horror at all of the deaths caused by things like smallpox.

Comments:
Agreed. Anonymity won't last long. Barring a really bad technological crash, of course.
 
Perceptive.

Another view is the tradeoff between freedom and security. I think that it will be robotics that bring in the security feature, as a side effect of some other benefit.

-Steve
 
The treatment proposed is far worse than the disease.
 
I don't think they need to install biometrics such as fingerprint scanners, they could just make the use of Oyster cards mandatory and install (even more) cameras so that way when you check in and check out of the system you picture is recorded (and maybe even checked, but just recording it would probably be enough).

Oyster cards are RFID smart cards that have replaced all season tickets and to a lesser extent single/return tickets and day travelcards (besides containg season tickets, oyster cards can be "topped up" with a cash value, so there's no need to buy paper tickets if you have an Oyster card). Oyster cards work on busses as well.

I suppose making Oyster cards mandatory would inconvience non-Londoners, but then so would any mandatory biometric system.
 
You will replace the uncertainty of being robbed and abused by a random stranger with the almost certanty of being abused by the state.

Imagine the possibilties for the bureaucrat who can access the information on where and when you have been.

I am not looking forward to this.
 
Anyone who has read David Brin knows that the way to fight this isn't by clinging to privacy like a sacred cow. It's by working to ensure that the transparency is two-way, so that the state's activities are just as visible to the people as the people's are to the state. The only alternative is for officials to claim to be protecting our privacy, and us with no way of knowing whether they actually are or not.
 
Within a few blocks of my house within the last month there have been three armed robberies all of which occured on the street. If cameras were mounted, the perpetrators could have been easily tracked down. More likely they would never have dared to commit the crime. Do we rightly have any expectation of anonymity on a public street? Is it any more an invasion of our privacy if a police officer was stationed on the street corner versus a camera?

The technology exists today and is in use in a number of locals to mount cameras across a city in order to detect crimes and track their perpetrators. Do these denizens of Chicago or London live in a police state or simply in a secured zone?

It comes back to accountability and openness. Both the government and its citizenry need to practice it. In a true democratic society classified information are an anethema and as we've seen time and time again are used to hide governement abuses from its people.
 
I agree with mike. There need be no privacy from video cameras in public (unless they are x-ray or other potentially imprudent technologies).

Private companies have every right already to track your exact location. The government has no right (unless warranted by court order) to survey individuals in private areas.

I see no need for this to change.
 
Anonymity is already becoming a thing of the past in the UK. My wife and I went to London last year and found there were cameras everywhere (including onboard public busses, in the subway system, looking down public streets, etc.)

By the way, did anyone else notice that after 9-11 almost overnight just about every major intersection in America received a shiny new "red light runner" camera?
 
Good riddance to anonimity

Let's get all CCTV interlinked and at megapixel resolution, lets add metadata to it, lets make all cctv private and public available to all security service, lets add number plate recognition, lets add geodata to it.

let the villians live in fear for a change
 
A purse-snatcher was tackled on my lawn by a good samaritan a few days ago. I heard the ruckus outside my window, grabbed my camera, and got some excellent shots of the perpetrator's face through my bedroom window. Fifteen minutes later the police had the images on a CD; they're publishing them in the papers. It's dangerous to be a petty thief these days with all these digital cameras around.
 
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