SFWRITER.COM > Hominids > Privacy: Who Needs It?
Privacy: Who Needs It?
by Robert J. Sawyer
Copyright © 2002 by Robert J. Sawyer.
All rights reserved.
First published in Maclean's: Canada's Weekly Newsmagazine, October 7, 2002.
I published the following deliberately provocative essay in one of Canada's
largest-circulation magazines to coincide with the release of my science-fiction novel
Hominids. That book and its two sequels
explore the pluses and the minuses of a society that uses the alibi-archive
technology I outline below. Not all the opinions expressed below are ones I
personally agree with; as always my goal is to spark thoughtful reflection and debate.
went on to win the Hugo Award
science fiction's top international honor
for best novel of the year.
- Volume 2 of the trilogy,
also a Hugo finalist.
- Volume 3, Hybrids,
was a finalist for the Spectrum Award, which honors positive portrayals of
LGBTQ issues in speculative fiction, and received a starred review, denoting a
book of exceptional merit, from Booklist.
- And, in 2017, the entire trilogy that began with Hominids won
the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Association's Aurora Award
for Best Work of Decade (the first decade
of the 21st century).
"Charming and provocative some of the most outrageous,
stimulating speculation since Robert A. Heinlein's
Stranger in a Strange Land questioned our tired,
Whenever I visit a tourist attraction that has a guest register,
I always sign it. After all, you never know when you'll need an
I've been doing this since I was a kid, but these days you don't
have to take any positive action to leave a trail behind. Almost
everything we do is recorded. Closed-circuit cameras watch us in
most public places. Our credit-card purchases, telephone calls,
and web surfing are all tracked.
Editorialists have decried these losses of privacy, as if it were
the most sacred of human rights. But just what is the
value of privacy? Do we really need it? And, indeed, can we
afford it? After all, everything from your son's shoplifting to
the destruction of the towers at the World Trade Center could
have been prevented if we had less of an ability to do things in
And yet we continue to insist that honest people need to have
that ability. The founders of the United States, for instance,
believed that governments have to be overthrown from time to
time. That's the rationale behind their Second Amendment,
allowing private gun ownership: the people need to be able to
take up arms against an oppressive regime.
But oppressive regimes are crumbling all over the world, and
there are so many checks and balances in most governmental
systems these days that there's no need for bloody overthrow.
And yet by making it a fundamental right to plot and conspire to
violently oust democratically elected authorities, you're bound
to have terrorists.
We Canadians peacefully negotiated our independence and
have shown the world how such things should be handled in the
21st century by agreeing in turn to peacefully negotiate Quebec
separation, if most people there want that. But the U.S. still
makes a big deal about having to fight for independence. And
indeed they did but that was hundreds of years ago. In
this, the Third Millennium, do we really need a social system
based on allowing for armed uprisings and backroom conspiracies?
Surveillance and the collection of personal information are
unavoidable in this closed-circuit, computerized world. Rather
than trying to end them, we should be striving to find ways to
maximize their benefits for the average citizen.
Recently, I was keynote speaker
at the 12th Annual Canadian Conference on Intelligent Systems,
Canada's principal gathering of experts on robotics and
artificial intelligence. The two tasks most of the researchers
there were concentrating on were pattern recognition and data-mining.
So far, most applications for these technologies have been
commercial: if you buy a Walkman and are enrolled in a
night-school course, you might be interested in buying textbooks
on tape. True enough and certainly irritating if someone
calls while you're eating dinner to sell you the unabridged audio
version of McLuhan's Understanding Media.
But I can't see the downside of an RCMP or CSIS computer noting
that my neighbour has bought all the materials to make a pipe
bomb and has booked a one-way flight to Tahiti. About the only
government entity routinely looking through personal data for
patterns is the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency, hunting for
unusual values on tax returns that might indicate a cheater.
Frankly, I'd much rather the government was tracking down
potential terrorists, sex offenders, and so on.
George Orwell scared the bejeebers out of us with his Big
Brother. But when I was a kid, it was actually a comfort knowing
that my own big brother was watching over me while I played in
the park. With proper safeguards, there's no reason why any
honest person should fear a little benign oversight.
Indeed, our pets already benefit from this. Dogs routinely have
chips implanted to make them easy to find when lost
whereas our own children often disappear without a trace. Ask
any parent who has had a son or daughter abducted if some
abstract notion of privacy really is more important than the life
of their child.
Still, Luddites will continue to insist that monitoring of humans
means giving up too much. Perhaps. But as Scott McNealy, CEO of
computer giant Sun Microsystems, says, "You have zero privacy
anyway. Get over it." In other words, such monitoring and
tracking is already going on to benefit big business. Why not
take advantage of it to improve our own lives?
Sure, no one wants people they don't know looking over their
shoulder. But most of us take holiday photos, make home videos,
keep a diary, or otherwise record what we know will be important
moments of our lives. And yet the truly crucial moments
when a punk sticks a gun in your ribs, when another car
sideswipes yours, when you accidentally leave your favourite hat
somewhere go unrecorded simply because we didn't know they
were about to happen.
But imagine a permanently activated recorder: a small implant,
say, that keeps track of your whereabouts using signals from the
satellite-based Global Positioning System. Suppose the implant
constantly broadcasts your exact location to a centralized
facility. At that facility call it the Alibi Archives
you would have your own personal black box, keeping track
of your movements.
No one but you, or, if you disappeared, your family or the
police, could access the contents of your black box. But if you
did disappear kidnapped, lost, fallen down a hole,
wandering aimlessly because of Alzheimer's you could be
quickly found. No more missing persons; no more desperate
Sounds useful, no? Now, what about adding a constant
transmission of your vital signs. If they indicated you were
having a heart attack or stroke, an ambulance could be
That's not too scary, is it? Okay: let's take it a step
further. Add a tiny audiovisual recorder to the implant, and you
could have a permanent home video of your life made
automatically. Everything from demonstrating to your wife that
you really did say, "That dress makes you look hot," not "fat,"
to finding that lost favourite hat would be easy.
Ah, but it gets better. If everyone's actions were recorded
for their eyes only, unless a proper court order demanded
otherwise think of the reduction in crime. Who would
assault, murder, or rape, if they knew that the victim would have
a complete off-site record of the event made by their own
And imagine the further reduction in crime, when the criminal
knows that his location and actions are being tracked. Maybe you
couldn't identify your own assailant but computers could
scan the archives and find out precisely who was standing next to
you at 9:04 p.m., when you were forced to hand over your diamond
Notice I said jewelry, and not your wallet. That's because an
implant could also serve as an irrefutable personal ID. Your car
wouldn't start for anyone but you; no more car theft. You'd
never get locked out of your own home again. And a true cashless
society would become possible, with implants communicating with
each other to debit and credit accounts. Paper money is beloved
of drug dealers and tax evaders; recorded electronic transfers
could put an end to all that.
Such implants would start off as a consumer-electronics item in
peaceful democratic nations, not as an enforced requirement under
oppressive regimes. But, as such regimes continue to disappear,
we might soon enough end up with everyone everywhere being
required to have one. And why not? You're already required to
have a license to drive and a passport to travel.
There are only two reasons we desire privacy. The first is
because of the ridiculous shame societies have heretofore heaped
on natural human activities and nudity.
Yes, our Victorian ancestors might have been desperate to hide
things from their families and neighbours, because so many
activities were proscribed. But who really cares today if
someone is gay, smokes pot, or likes to watch porno films? It's
not the freedom to do things that would disappear with constant
black-box monitoring; it's the silly laws that make victimless
The only other reason to need privacy is so you can get away with
something unethical or illegal. It was privacy, not the lack of
it, that made Paul Bernardo's depredations possible. It was
privacy, not the lack of it, that made al-Qaeda possible. It was
privacy, not the lack of it, that made the current crisis in the
Catholic Church possible.
But what about the bogeyman of totalitarianism? Again, it was
privacy that made Hitler's Final Solution come within a hair's
breadth of succeeding. But it was the lack of privacy
the openness of communication through the Internet
that prevented the Chinese government from covering up the 1989
massacre in Tiananmen Square, or from trying anything similar
Besides, if you have your own personal implant communicating
constantly with the central computerized archives, democracy
becomes more powerful, not less, with everyone being able to
instantaneously vote in an ever-increasing number of referenda
Still, some might argue that governments do have legitimate
needs for privacy but, come now, our politicians have long
since lost any of their own. We know all about Ralph Klein's
drinking habits and Bill Clinton's sexual escapades.
Ah, but what about military secrets? Oh, perhaps there's some
value in being able to shunt Dick Cheney off to an "undisclosed
location," but, really, it's the aggressors who benefit
from the ability to do things clandestinely. If the Japanese had
been privy to the July 16, 1945, A-bomb test explosion in
Alamogordo, New Mexico, I doubt they would have needed to be
surprised by bombs dropping on Hiroshima and Nagasaki before
The message of history, most spectacularly driven home on
September 11, 2001, is that preserving society as a whole is much
more important than preserving an illusory personal freedom. And
if our species is going to survive, we must wake up to that fact.
See, there's a long-standing problem in astronomy called the
Fermi Paradox, named for physicist Enrico Fermi who first
proposed it in 1950. If the universe should be teeming with
life, asked Fermi, then where are all the aliens? The question
is even more vexing today: SETI, the search for extraterrestrial
intelligence with radio telescopes, has utterly failed to turn up
any sign of alien life forms. Why?
One chillingly likely possibility is that, as the ability to
wreak damage on a grand scale becomes more readily available to
individuals, soon enough just one malcontent, or one lunatic,
will be able to destroy an entire world. Perhaps countless alien
civilizations have already been wiped out by single terrorists
who'd been left alone to work unmonitored in their private
We've already seen what one crazed suicide bomber can do with
twentieth-century technology; imagine the devastation he or she
might manage with the ordnance and genetic capabilities that will
be freely available within the next few decades. We can be sure
that those who wish society harm will be taking full advantage of
advanced technologies. Why shouldn't we take advantage of
technology to protect ourselves?
Instead of having a knee-jerk reaction that says any loss of
privacy is bad, let's discuss the potential pitfalls and work out
ways to relieve them. Canada's Privacy Commissioner is a model
worldwide for avoiding abuses; there's no reason why we can't
devise a system of implants and personal black boxes that really
Whether we want American-style life, liberty, and the pursuit of
happiness, or Canadian peace, order, and good government,
clinging to privacy at all costs is the worst thing we can do.
For, as the silence from the stars attests, not only is an
unexamined life not worth living, it may be that unexamined lives
are too dangerous for us to allow them to be lived. The very
future of humanity may depend on giving up the outmoded notion of
privacy, rather than fighting to retain it.
Toronto-area science-fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer
explores the idea of a constantly monitored society in his
Hugo Award-winning novel Hominids,
from Tor Books. For all sorts of private stuff about him, see
More on Rob as a conference speaker
"As conference chair for Gartner's annual
Information Security Summit,
I contacted Robert J. Sawyer based on a co-worker's recommendation.
I asked Robert to assist in producing, and to moderate, a session
called Science Fiction Writers Panel: Information Security and the
"Robert helped us evaluate suitable panel members for this topic,
worked to help us contact and contract with them, and when the big day
came, moderated the panel with the highest degrees of professionalism,
along with considerable wit, humor and clarity. As they occasionally
can do, when the panelists wandered off in flights of fancy outside
our topic area, Robert skillfully and diplomatically brought the
discussion back to relevance with the main theme.
"I have no doubt about Robert Sawyer's ability to hold an audience's
attention, either solo or in the more challenging panel discussion
format, and recommend him for suitable corporate or other events."
Victor S. Wheatman
Managing Vice-President, San Jose
More Good Reading
More about Hominids
More about Humans
More about Hybrids
About Rob's novel Wake,
which deals with online privacy concerns
Rob's op-ed piece on The Canada Council and science fiction
Rob's op-ed piece on science: ten lost years
Rob's op-ed piece on multitasking and attention deficit
Rob's op-ed piece on a bright idea for atheists
Rob's op-ed piece on Stephen Hawking's call to colonize space
Rob's op-ed piece on Michael Crichton blending fact and fiction
Rob's op-ed piece on the private sector in space
Rob's op-ed piece on technology and the end of culture
Rob's Random Musings on other topics
Rob's More Nonfiction by Rob
HOME • MENU • TOP
Copyright © 1995-2020 by Robert J. Sawyer.