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12/21/2007
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Don't Let Self-Improvement Tools Be Used Against You

'Myware' that tracks everything we do can be enormously helpful, but it can also be used to spy on us. The big challenge will be to figure out how to get the life-improving benefits without destroying privacy, says columnist Cory Doctorow.

There is enormous demand for both myware and spyware. We can’t (yet) design a kitchen that will magically put the pots you’re likely to need right at the front of the cupboard, but we’re pretty close to designing a radio and TV that record stuff you’re likely to want to watch for you. Anyone with RSI problems can benefit from programs that help you time and moderate your keyboard use.

But every turnstile in London tracks every journey you pay for with your RFID-enabled Oyster card; the California Highway Patrol keeps track of your movements through your FasTrak transponder, reading it even when you’re not going through a toll plaza; the USA and Japan are fingerprinting millions of visitors and even Disney World uses fingerprint readers to keep track of the fingertips of the people who visit the Orlando parks (I used to worry that Disney would make my little girl want to grow up to be a vapid princess; now I worry that she’ll grow up to be a docile citizen of a police state).

The perennial question of technology and society is this: will technology serve us, or enslave us? The answer lies in the design and ethos of the technology. A system that helps you know yourself is a system that empowers you and a system that helps others keep tabs on you is a system that ultimately makes you into its servant.

It’s analogous to the question of open systems versus “digital rights management” (AKA digital restrictions management): an open system treats the owner of the system as a trusted party and lets her do anything (even things that seem irrational, like deleting your harddrive). DRM treats the owner of the system as an attacker and attempt to control her behaviors, as though merely owning a computer or device does not entitle you to use it as you see fit.

The apologists for the machine-control state will tell you that honest people have nothing to hide, that privacy is dead, that restrictions just keep honest users honest. This is a pretty self-serving little package. Privacy isn’t important because you have something to hide: it’s important because it’s private. Look at it this way: we all go to the bathroom. There’s nothing shameful about this. But it takes a rather special kind of person to want to go to the bathroom in public.

And why is it that the people most loudly declaring privacy to be dead are by and large wealthy, insulated from the worst consequences of routine privacy violations, and often trying to sell you on why you should allow your privacy to be violated to help them further their goals?

Cory Doctorow blogs at Boing Boing, and is also a journalist, Internet activist, and science fiction writer. Read his previous InformationWeek columns.

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