Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Cell phones and the end privacy

A couple of weeks ago we saw a great example of how the prevalence of cell phone cameras can be a great equalizer between the people and those in power when a UCLA student caught a video of campus police repeatedly tazing a student.

Of course, this is really nothing new. Think of the video of the Rodney King beating, and other examples going back at least a decade. The number of video capable devices in ordinary people's hands has grown by leaps and bounds since then, making these types of incidents all the more common.

We all now carry electronic devices that we can use to turn on others, and others can use to turn on us - both for good and bad results. That three members of the Kim family were rescued earlier this week (unfortunately, the father, James, was finally found, dead, today) from a frozen Oregon wilderness was in great part due to the ability track in on their cell phone when a friend sent them a text message.

The flip side of the same piece of technology is shown in this article: FBI taps cell phone mic as eavesdropping tool. I bet you didn't even know this was possible - that your cell company could flip a switch that would turn your phone into a bug even when you are not making a call.

The article shows how this technique was used to put surveillance on organized crime figures. I know, you're not a mobster, so you're not worried. But, in this age of national security paranoia, when the president can declare anybody he (dis)likes an "enemy combatant" and have them held indefinitely, it gets a whole lot scarier.

Then, just as I was finishing that article, I received this question by email:
I've been thinking.

It used to be that if you were going to do something wrong, the only people you had to worry about busting you were the police.

Now that every cell phone comes, inexplicably, equipped with a camera, ordinary citizens are doing a lot of the busting and going public with their videos on YouTube.

Is this constant threat of exposure a good thing?
My reply:

Double-edged sword -- It can be a great tool for democracy and people power by keeping the authorities in check -- But it can also be used by less upstanding people to destroy any concept of privacy.

Welcome to our brave new world.

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