Freedom in a digital world

For a long time, there was alignment between what we wanted when it came to privacy and what was possible for the government to do. We relished our privacy and got used to the freedom to act anonymously at the same time that the government and marketers really couldn't keep track even if they wanted to.

In the pre-internet world, there was just no way to imagine a useful database of every citizen's fingerprints. The thought that a store would know every item you've ever purchased (and not just at their store) was crazy. Freedom from intrusion existed largely because the alternative was impossible.

Today, of course, we know that we can sequence the DNA of every resident and put it in a database. We can install so many cameras in a city that just about every corner is under surveillance. We can even wire cars so that they give themselves tickets when the driver is speeding. And yes, marketers already know about which websites you've visited recently.

Which leads to a series of questions that we're not asking.

Should there be speed limits? If so, should a violation depend on the bad luck of getting caught by a random cop on a random road (maybe)? Or should it be automatic?

Should drunk driving be permitted? If not, why not have a breathalyzer in every car, so that a simple puff of air is necessary to start the car? What if the insurance company gave you a big discount if you opted in?

Should everyone, even the presumed innocent, be required to put their DNA in a databank so that violent criminals are much more likely to be found? If not, who should have their data shared? How many innocent people behind bars could we free (and guilty parties could we catch?)

Should the government be able to sift through bank records looking for money laundering behavior? What about seeking out trends in tax records or cell phone calling patterns?

What about building a database of everyone who attends a football game (using facial recognition)? A politcal rally?

Should we take advantage of technology to allow us to trace every bullet and know what gun it was fired from?

One argument is that those with nothing to hide are already being surveilled in countless ways, and we probably ought to make laws to get those that would hurt the rest to be included.

The other argument is that all surveillance is too much, and it should be permitted to wear a clown mask into a bank and there ought not to be speed limits.

As usual, we're going to end up somewhere in between, but like all things the Net breaks, this one is going to take a long time to catch up to what's already happening.

In the meantime, I wish we were asking more questions.