Spying on DNA, Verizon, and free will

New technologies extend the reach of surveillance tools to not only DNA and Verizon calls but also emotions and brain waves. Will this lead to a denial of individuals having moral agency and autonomy of thought?

AP Photo
An aerial view of the National Security Agency (NSA) in Fort Meade, Md. The Obama administration on Thursday defended the National Security Agency's need to collect telephone records of US citizens, calling such information "a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats."

Humans read each other’s faces to detect emotions. If that is difficult, they may even offer a bribe: “A penny for your thoughts.” We’re so used to inferring each other’s inner life that it’s easy to not think twice about new technologies that are slowly taking over the task – whether for good or ill.

Take, for example, Google Glass, the wearable computer in a head-mounted display that could easily come with a facial-recognition application that can discern whether someone is lying, in love, contemptuous, or bored. Fortunately, Google has decided not to release the app – for now. The technology – much like the street-level views on Google Maps – still raises difficult questions about privacy.

Yet the pressure persists, especially in government, for better tools for surveillance of people’s bodies, behavior, and – increasingly – their mental and emotional states. Two examples this month show just how eager the government is.

The Supreme Court ruled June 3 that police can swab a person’s mouth for DNA upon arrest. The justices likened this to fingerprinting, saying it can help solve or prevent crime. And on June 6, the Obama administration admitted it was secretly collecting the phone records (although not the conversations) of all Verizon customers – yes, all – in its antiterrorist surveillance.

Like airport body scanners, such high-tech anticrime tools in themselves may be acceptable if a court or Congress approves their use. Such approval implies societal consent or constitutionality. And Internet companies like Google and Facebook are improving their privacy practices as more consumers seek control of their personal data in return for handing it over.

But science is also on the cusp of releasing many tools to detect or track emotional states and brain activity. This raises questions about whether government and business will treat people as being controlled by neurons and hormones rather than as moral agents with independent thought.

Some experts claim notions like consciousness, even conscience, must change as neuroscience makes advances. “The idea that our conscious, individual thinking is the key determining factor of our behavior may come to be seen as foolish a vanity as our earlier idea that we were the center of the universe,” argues Alex Pentland, a computer scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in his book “Honest Signals.”

Yet others say society will not function unless it recognizes humans can make choices regardless of any theory of brain science. That is why concerns about privacy – such as the right not to self-incriminate – are so strong. “If there is a quintessential zone of human privacy it is the mind,” wrote the late Justice Allen Broussard of California’s Supreme Court.

As brain imaging and emotion detectors improve, people’s needs to rely on free will and the dignity of thought must not be eroded. The users of iPhone’s Siri or similar “intelligent” software are not about to outsource all of their cognitive abilities.

“A sphere of private rumination is essential to our fundamental concepts of freedom of thought, freedom of expression, freedom of will and individual autonomy,” writes law professor Francis Shen. “Whether or not we preserve that sphere may come to define us as a society as emerging neuroscience begins to take hold.”

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