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Business Case: Will We Reach 1984 By 2004?

Slowly, we have traded privacy for convenience and safety, says Bob Rubin.

George Orwell's book 1984 presents a chilling, desolate description of a totalitarian state which intrudes on all aspects of individual life. The government knows everything and acts upon it. The novel is memorable; it coined words such as "doublethink," "thought crime," and, especially, "big brother," which have become part of our everyday vocabulary. Lord Acton's aphorism, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely" was perhaps never so strikingly illustrated.

I reflected on 1984 recently when I read that Applied Digital Solutions is seeking the FDA's permission to market a computer ID chip that can be embedded under a person's skin. The device, called a VeriChip, is about the size of a grain of rice and would be difficult to counterfeit or transfer to another person. It's touted as almost-foolproof security for access to high-risk facilities, such as nuclear power plants.

As much as it sounds like science fiction, there's no technical reason why the technology cannot work. The benefits, as identified by the firm, could be enormous. In addition to enhanced security verification, medical records, for example, could be made immediately available to emergency squad personnel, even from an unconscious patient.

It made sense to me that there could really be a lot of pluses with an embedded chip. So why did I think of Orwell? After all, in a few years (let's say 2004), the world could be both a lot safer and much more convenient for all of us. Lost or abducted children more easily traced. No more stolen identities. Fewer medical mistakes, and doctors able to access critically needed information about us. Speeded-up checkout lines at the supermarket. Not to worry about lost credit cards. Boarding of airplanes without having to show a photo ID three times. No need for profiling. We know who you are. "Ah," as Hamlet might have uttered in this situation, "There's the rub."

Slowly, we have traded privacy for convenience and safety. Computerized toll-collection booths and global-positioning systems mean faster trips and the ability to find out where we are if we get lost. Credit cards let us travel freely without the burden of having to carry cash. Affinity cards give us discounts at our favorite supermarkets. All of these, however, provide logs of our movements and purchases to companies and government agencies. Soon our cell phones will have a mandated function that tracks location when 911 is dialed. It's a great advantage--no more frustration of, "I need help, but I'm not sure where I am." Of course, the same feature also can be used to track our wanderings during the day.

The Internet and computerization have exacerbated the issues involved. Want personalized service? No problem. We'll drop a cookie or two on your hard drive and, voila, we greet you by name and treat you as an honored customer. We'll even keep lists of your financial assets, favorite wines, or movies for your convenience. If you're concerned about your privacy, trust us, we won't abuse it. Just read our policy. What is privacy, anyway, in the era where so much about you is known to so many? What should be our attitude? Was Scott McNealy right when he said, "There is no privacy, get over it"?

In this country, we have a long history and a deep concern for the rights of the individual. Unfortunately, democratic institutions aren't the world's predominate form of government. Nor can democracies thrive without placing some restrictions on individual freedoms for the greater good of the community. There are speed limits on our roads, and it's still illegal to needlessly yell "Fire" in a crowded theater.

We struggle with this problem. With each new convenience of technology comes the responsibility of evaluating what will be the impact collectively and adopting appropriate boundaries while it's still possible. It's no different than when the motorcar freed us from the burdens of horse-drawn transportation. I doubt that anyone at the time ever really considered pollution, traffic deaths, the suburbs, or oil embargos. Would we have stuck with horses? I don't think so, but I do imagine we might have at least handled some things better if we had realized the consequences of the horseless carriage.

Make no mistake, we will adopt new technology, perhaps even the embedded personal chip in some form or another. But if we're smart, we'll think ahead about the world we're crafting. What price security; what price convenience? Where will it lead; where will it end? And when we get there, will we like very much what we have wrought?

This is the last issue of my online column until further notice. It's been a privilege to write it, and I've especially enjoyed your letters and comments. I will, however, continue to write periodically for Optimize.

Robert M. Rubin is CEO of Valley Management Consultants, a firm specializing in information technology strategy, evaluation, and organizational design. Prior to joining VMC, he was senior VP and CIO for Elf Atochem North America, a $2 billion diversified chemical company. The recipient of multiple industry awards, he is a contributing editor to InformationWeek and a member of its advisory board.

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