Personal Space Invaders
The top science-and-tech privacy threats of 2007.
It's been another big year for scientific and technological encroachments on individual privacy. For good or ill, governments and businesses are finding new ways to enter what used to be considered personal space. Here are this year's top 10 highlights.
1. Surveillance cameras. They're everywhere. Britain has more than 4 million; France has more than 300,000 and is aiming for 1 million; China is building a network of 200,000. New York City wants a few hundred more to enforce traffic fees. Responding to civil libertarian complaints, New York's mayor points out that the city's cameras are nothing compared with the thousands of private security cameras already infesting Manhattan. Meanwhile, the technology is becoming more sophisticated. China's cameras "will soon be guided by software … to recognize automatically the faces of police suspects and detect unusual activity." France plans to do some of its surveillance through aerial drones. Britain is installing loudspeakers in its cameras so operators can scold youfor littering, fighting, or vandalism.
2. The war on smoking. Tobacco prohibition is moving steadily indoors. Propelled by evidence of harm from passive smoke, Arkansas, Louisiana, and local governments from Maine to New York have banned smoking in cars when minors are present. The original argument for such bans was that kids, unlike adults, can't get out of the car. Lately, however, banners have added the argument that smoking distracts the driver. This argument doesn't require any kids in the car, and indeed, the high court of New Delhi, India, has banned smoking while driving, period. Vermont, Germany, and Ireland have considered similar crackdowns. Meanwhile, smoking has been banned in thousands of apartment complexes, based on arguments that 1) smoke bleeds into neighboring units no matter what you do, 2) it's bad for your neighbors' health, and 3) smokers' apartments cost more to clean after they move out. Now the movement is invading smokers' bodies: Doctors are promoting a "pulse cooximeter" that attaches to your finger and measures the percentage of carbon monoxide in your blood. Proposed uses include "screening smoking status in [high schools] and the workplace." (Related: Human Nature's critique of the war on smoking.)
3. The war on junk food. On the heels of New York's trans-fat ban, Los Angeles cut a deal with local restaurants to eliminate trans fats in 18 months. Los Angeles also considered atwo-year ban on new fast-food restaurants in parts of the city,as Berkeley and other jurisdictions have done. Malaysia considered a ban on fast-food ads anda "sin tax" on fast food, and San Francisco's mayor has just proposed a fee on sellers of sugary drinks. Proponents of regulation compare junk food to cigarettes: an unhealthy, deliberately addictive product systematically marketed to people in neighborhoods with few other food options. Opponents reply that people buy fast food because it's tasty, affordable, and convenient. Increasingly, the debate turns on the argument that unhealthy food raises medical expenses for everyone, thereby trumping appeals to personal choice. However, new research suggests that the most common replacement for trans fats—"interesterified fats"—may be just as unhealthy. (Related: The unfolding battle plan against junk food.)
4. The war on salt. In December, the FDA held a hearing to consider regulating salt as a food additive instead of the current policy of declaring it "generally recognized as safe." Possible outcomes of this effort include "federal limits on the salt content of processed foods." Proponents of regulation argue that Americans eat about 50 percent more sodium than the recommended limit and that by cutting back, we can save lives and lower health-care costs. They add that we can also reduce obesity, since people drink soda or beer with salty food. Their clincher argument is that this isn't really a freedom issue, since producers package salt into your food instead of letting you choose your own level. The food industry replies that it's already lowering salt content voluntarily and that consumers don't buy products advertised as low-salt. (Related: This looks like a replay of the early campaigns to restrict fat and sugar.)
5. Pedestrian cell-phone use. Many states and cities have restricted phone use while driving. This year, a New York legislator took the next step: proposing to ban use of cell phones, iPods, and BlackBerrys while crossing the street. The bill declared that: 1) it would be a crime to "enter and cross a crosswalk while engaging in the use of an electronic device" and 2) "a user of an electronic device who holds such device to, or in the immediate proximity of his or her ear, is presumed to be engaging in the use of said device." The proposed fine was $100. Proponents argue that such legislation will protect drivers as well as pedestrians, and that "it is impossible to be fully aware of one's own surroundings when occupied in using an electronic device." Critics, in turn, ask why, in that case, it should be legal to engage in other distractions, such as walking while reading a newspaper, or operating your car stereo (or, dare we say, your police radio) while driving. (Disclaimer: Human Nature is an incorrigible reader-while-walking.)
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.