Saturday, August 11, 2007

Surveillance Society

If you're an adulterer, be careful. And you might also consider riding a bicycle to your trysts. Your E-ZPass could give you away.

"E-ZPass is an E-ZPass to go directly to divorce court, because it's an easy way to show you took the off-ramp to adultery," said Jacalyn Barnett, a New York divorce lawyer who has used E-ZPass records a few times.

Lynne Gold-Bikin, a Pennsylvania divorce lawyer, said E-ZPass helped prove a client's husband was being unfaithful: "He claimed he was in a business meeting in Pennsylvania. And I had records to show he went to New Jersey that night."

The point of this post, however, is a larger one. As with many technological conveniences, we don't know the full consequences of their use until this use is embedded into society and its institutions. It's easy to see this in the case of nuclear technology; irrelevant in the case of a toaster. But I wonder about the extent to which not only surveillance technologies explicitly intended for surveillance but also seemingly simple conveniences begin to reorder human behavior. In a society that fetishizes security despite its strain of civil libertarianism, one can imagine not only computers, cameras, IDs, credit cards, and E-ZPasses as at least potential and possibly actual sources of surveillance, and thus further paranoia, but also other bits and pieces of behavioral habits intertwined with the technologies of daily life. One can imagine the creation of virtual persons. Not the virtual persons of Second Life, which are more or less freely chosen, but virtual persons created out of the accumulation of information about our real selves. Businesses have done this for years. But what if the information is more complex and vast and continually updated? It's not difficult to imagine our cumulative daily behavior reassembled into virtual identities, alter-egos in the databases of Homeland Security or the NSA, ultimately creating individual biographies premised on the assumption that we are all potentially a threat to the state.

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