[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
Hugo and Nebula Winner

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.

  • Hominids went on to win the Hugo Award — science fiction's top international honor — for best novel of the year.

  • Volume 2 of the trilogy, Humans, was 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).

[Hominids] [Humans] [Hybrids]
"Charming and provocative — some of the most outrageous, stimulating speculation since Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land questioned our tired, timid conventions."Publishers Weekly

[Hugo Award logo] 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 alibi.

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 secret.

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 searches.

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 automatically dispatched.

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 implant?

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 jewelry.

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 activities illegal.

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 since.

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 and plebiscites.

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 surrendering.

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 laboratories.

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 works.

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 www.sfwriter.com.

"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 Sci-Fi Future.

"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
Gartner, Inc.

More on Rob as a conference speaker


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
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