RECENT developments in telecommunications, such as the merging of telephones and computers, the replacement of copper wires with fiber-optic lines, and advances in satellite and wireless technology, offer great promise.
We are moving toward a situation where in principle it will be possible to instantly communicate with anyone, anywhere, at any time, for minimal cost.
It might also be possible to obtain equivalent access to databases containing much of the world's knowledge, culture, and entertainment. Technologies that in the past were in the realm of science fiction, or restricted to government or the very rich, are increasingly available.
Yet technology is a knife with more than one blade. The image of an omnipresent "Big Brother," able to pry into the previously protected crevices of private life, captures one potential problem.
Traditionally, to invade privacy required crossing an intact barrier, be it physical or temporal - doors, walls, distance, darkness, or someone's "forgotten" past. Now, however, a vast array of new information-gathering technologies can invisibly undermine these boundaries.
Weak or inefficient technology is no longer an unplanned ally of liberty. The technology is evolving faster than our laws, policies, and manners can control it. Consider some recent examples from the United States:
* Teachers in a school lounge were complaining about their principal, when one jokingly said: "Be careful, the room might be bugged." Just then another teacher saw a transmitter in the ceiling, which in fact had been placed there by the principal.
* In a toy manufacturer's television advertisement a clown asked children to place their telephone receiver in front of the TV set. The studio then broadcast a signal which resulted in the child's phone automatically dialing a toll-free line. The number called had a new "automatic number-identification" service and recorded the child's phone number. The purpose was to create marketing lists.
* In advertising this number-identification service, one telephone company promises businesses that it offers "the complete phone number of virtually every call" [made to the business]. Once the number has been "captured," commercial users can instantly merge it with other information in their databases.
* "Junk" phone calls, often using synthesized voices and automated dialing, are increasingly common. In some cases these unwanted calls cannot be disconnected. Citizens have effectively brought legal suits because an automated dialer captured their line and could not be disconnected, making it impossible to call for help during a medical or police emergency.
* An eavesdropper recently listened in on telephone calls made by Barbara Bush from the presidential jet. The increased spread of unprotected wireless communication - cordless phones, phones in cars, "baby room monitors," and mobile two-way radios - makes it easy to tap into private communications.
The increased use of software to control telephone switching can facilitate unauthorized listening to phone conversations. Rather than having to gain access to a wire to make the intercept, a knowledgeable individual using a modem could remotely reprogram a line such that all calls made are simultaneously (and silently) rerouted to a third line and recorded. The line might also be sabotaged by making it impossible to dial out, or by causing anyone who dialed in to receive a constant busy signal.
Phones can also be made "hot on the hook." An "infinity transmitter" attached to a telephone, or as part of an answering machine, converts the phone into a microphone. The individual who dials in (the phone does not ring) can listen to what is being said in the room. The headsets used by many telephone reservationists contain tiny microphones which permit remote monitoring of all office conversation by a supervisor many floors, or miles, away.
Computer communications and entries can be easily intercepted - either electronic mail sent between computers, or documents stored in a computer file.
More than 10 million employees in the United States are subject to computer monitoring of their work. This includes not only counting keystrokes, errors, and time away from the machine, but monitoring content as well.
Software programs such as "ctrl,spy," and "peek" permit remote secret monitoring of a target's personal computer. The image seen on most unprotected computer screens can be reproduced a mile away using simple technology without ever gaining access to the premises where the computer is located.
Of course the same technology that invades privacy can be used to protect it. Telecommunications can be encrypted and biometric devices (handprints, fingerprints, or voiceprints or retinal patterns) can be required to gain access to telecommunications equipment.
Yet these can be expensive and there is a danger of ever-greater escalation, as counterdevices constantly appear in response to new protections or invasions. A society that can only maintain civil behavior by technical means is a society in trouble. It is important to establish standards guaranteeing communications privacy.
At a minimum, under normal circumstances these standards should include:
* No listening, viewing, or recording of communications without all parties' consent.
* Fair warning so that if devices such as automatic number-identification systems or speaker phones are in use, the other party is informed before the communication begins.
* Joint ownership of transactional data so that all parties to a data-creating transaction must agree to any subsequent use of the data and must share in any gains from its sale.
* Restoration - those technologically altering the privacy status quo should bear the cost of restoring it.
* A safety net or equity principle guaranteeing a minimum threshold of privacy available to all, regardless of what technology is capable of doing. There should be limits on the extent to which privacy is treated as a commodity available only to those who can afford it.
* Consistency so that broad ideals, rather than the specific characteristics of a technology, determine privacy protection. Thus, even though it is technically easy to listen in on personal radio transmissions over cordless phones, the same principle is being violated as if a corded phone conversation were to be overheard.
* Redress - those subject to privacy invasions need adequate mechanisms for discovering violations and receiving compensation for them.
The protection of privacy says something about what a nation stands for and is vital to the protection of individual liberty. A thread running through all totalitarian systems is lack of respect for the individual's right to control information about the self.
It has been said that a civilization's nature can be seen in how it treats its prisoners. It might also be seen in how it treats personal privacy.