March 6, 2002
Nearly six months after the Sept. 11 attacks exposed vulnerabilities in America's security infrastructure, the debate continues over how much personal freedom should be sacrificed in the name of security--and whether information technology companies can quickly create solutions to help empower law-enforcement agencies and industry to meet security goals without trespassing on an individual's privacy.
Some say a line has to be drawn between privacy and anonymity. While companies that use technology to support homeland defense shouldn't take liberties with personal data, such as using that data for marketing purposes, they may need access to personal information (such as a digital photo) to enhance security. "I'm for the right to privacy but not necessarily the right to anonymity," says Bill Joy, Sun Microsystems' chief scientist and co-founder, who was a panelist at a conference held this week at Columbia University. "I don't know that it's practical or even possible for us to protect our anonymity anymore." A solution announced today by EDS, Oracle, PwC Consulting, and Sun Microsystems, for example, may preserve customer privacy but not anonymity. The companies launched an integrated package of products and services that will use biometric technology at airports to verify the identities of passengers who voluntarily register to become "known travelers"; they're issued a PIN number and a smart card that stores biometric data on their fingerprints and irises. They'll insert the card into a kiosk at airports to confirm their identities before a flight. The group is one of a number of vendors competing for contracts with the Transportation Security Administration to provide technology that establishes traveler identity and helps assess security risks. They're also offering Secure Employee, a product that identifies and assesses the security risks of employees, which would likely be mandatory for employees at airports that adopt it.Applied Digital Solutions Inc.'s new VeriChip technology further illustrates questions that are being raised about the balance of privacy and security. About as small as a grain of rice, the chip can be embedded under a person's skin and carry individual identification and other data. "This is where embedded systems meet the social matrix," says Troy Duster, a Columbia panelist and New York University professor of sociology.Joy says he expects that notions about civil liberties may have to be revisited in the name of security and freedom. He says, "We now have until another shoe drops to come up with some practical way of creating mechanisms that govern privacy while at the same time resetting expectations about civil liberties."
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