Let me begin this post with a story that I heard from an acquaintance who had recently visited her home country after a few years abroad. She decided to visit the newly built library in the capital and, as she went to inquire whether she needs to get a library card, the librarian just asked for her ID card. She spent a few hours in the library and found some materials she wanted to copy. As she soon discovered, she just needed to put her ID card in the copy machine, make the copies and the payment for copying was automatically deducted from her bank account. Sounds a bit futuristic? Maybe but that’s just one little example from the small Baltic country of Estonia, the birthplace of Skype. According to Freedom House, in 2012 Estonia was Nr.1 in the world regarding internet freedom and oh, do they use it – the majority of the government services are fully available online, even voting in national elections! (If you want to learn more, see the article “The poster child for cybersecurity done right“)
How appealing this story sounds to you may depend on a lot of things. My first thought was: how wonderfully convenient! Yet many people to whom I’ve told it react with suspicion and worry about the power invested in the little ID card. For example, what happens if someone breaks into the government database? And should so much sensitive information be store in one place? These are legitimate doubts, of course. Then again, can there be such a thing as too much caution? I’ve never really understood the people who, for instance, avoid ever paying by card because nobody, not even their bank, should have information on how much money they spend on what. I may be wrong, of course.
I see these questions and doubts about guarding one’s privacy in the age of internet and free flow of information as a little part of the dichotomy between freedom and security. The contrasting of freedom and security goes back to the writings of the political philosophers of the Enlightenment (think: Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau) who outlined the idea that individuals enter into an agreement with the state, surrendering some of their personal liberties and gaining security and protection in return aka “the social contract”. The debates about exactly how much, and which, liberties should be given up continue to surface again and again, albeit in different contexts in different parts of the world. While people in some countries fight for the freedom of speech, others squabble about the limits of gun ownership.
The duality of freedom and security in the time of previously inexperienced technological possibilities is the focus of two of the second week’s videos: Charlie 13 and Plurality. After watching these short movies and reading some of the comments about them I begun wondering: why are we so quick to classify them as dystopias? I mean, what do we really know about these two worlds? Our attention is focused on the fact that in Charlie’s world people are “tagged” by tracking devices while in “Plurality” there are sophisticated surveillance systems that monitor people’s DNA. Why do we find these ideas inherently scary? The movies itself don’t really tell us much about the downsides, or do they?
In “Plurality” we are told that the DNA surveillance has all but eliminated crime. Isn’t that a good thing? The only hint that something might be wrong with this system are the “hackers” from the future but they aren’t too specific on what exactly goes wrong. The situation is even less clear in “Charlie 13” where we’re told very little about the society itself. The only hint about possible dysfunctions is the existence of runaways but, for all we know, those could be just criminals escaping justice!
That said, I have to admit that I wouldn’t want to live in either of the two future worlds. In both of them the scale of freedom and security is tipped towards security too much.