Brainmatters |Wish lists


While children are busy preparing their wish lists for Saint Nicholas day, the press gave an interesting insight into the wishes of governmental and public agencies. The police want to exploit security leaks in personal computers to secretly browse on hard disks. Criminal investigators want access to academic DNA banks.

The wish list of the municipality of Amsterdam reads like that of a spoiled child. She desperately wants to deploy mobile cameras to register severe offences in public space, including, as the press uncovered, placing one’s trash bin in the street at improper times. On top of her wish list, however, are cameras with millimeter wave scanning capacities; the so-called nude-scanning technology from the airports’ customs.

The need for social control is as old as Saint Nicholas himself, but technological progress has steadily reduced the effort involved in registering where you are, what you are doing, and with whom. These technologies are used to increase social security and prevent terrorist attacks, but their use repeatedly violates our fundamental human rights. They were to be employed only if the ends, which cannot be achieved otherwise, justify the means. That is, only if the benefits outweigh the costs.

The benefits of such technologies as closed circuit television systems are hard to quantify. It is even harder to determine what price citizens have to pay for the curtailment of their privacy. Economists have attempted to measure the value of privacy by determining the price at which people are willing to sell all kinds of personal information. According to a recent study at the University of Berkley, privacy is worth little to nothing: one euro to be exact. Nobody, however, has investigated the effects of modern surveillance technologies on our personal freedom and autonomy. History has taught us, however, that it is unpleasant living in a country where the administration acts as a modern day Saint Nicolas, keeping a track record of the activities of all its citizens.

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