The New Slavery

The New Slavery

“We are turning our bodies into data. Since information can confer both power and wealth, we are at risk of a new slavery, with its attendants of old: loss of self-sovereignty, discrimination, corrosion of individual identity, dignity denied. At risk only — this is not a prediction — but sufficiently at risk to make it prudent pre-emptively to develop the language of a new emancipation.”

So writes Paul Chadwick in a compelling article, “The new slavery, body as data” in the fourth issue of the Griffith Review, a joint venture between Griffith University and the ABC.

Chadwick worries that increasingly sophisticated information communication technologies are facilitating the determination of commerce and government to collect, sift, match, trade, use and store information about us; he worries too about newer methods of data collection about our bodies such as biometrics and genetics.

“We slough off data like skin, unnoticed and constantly,” he writes. “Someone usually vacuums it up.”

He points out that how we collect samples, conduct tests, interpret and communicate results, and then act on our understanding of results, involves public policy issues of profound significance. “The risk of a new slavery lies in this realm,” he says.

It seems a fair point. As technology advances, privacy advocates and civil libertarians fear they are losing control. Technologists seem determined to push the privacy boundaries, despite mounting concern amongst some privacy advocates about the dangers of such potentially privacy-invasive technologies as RFID chips. The war looks to be ongoing, and ultimately unwinnable. And the potential for technology to play havoc with our personal privacy seems to grow by the day.

Reports earlier this year about a Copenhagen-based firm, EmpireNorth, supposedly demonstrating a modified sniper rifle as a means to inject unsuspecting targets with an RFID tag in order to track their movements, mercifully proved to be a hoax.

That reports of governments secretly planning to insert miniature tracking chips into persons deemed enemies of the state proved false should have come as a blessed relief. Instead, civil libertarian John Gilmore, posting on the Politech mailing list, quickly drew a vision of another, even more horrid dystopia.

“Nice hoax,” Gilmore wrote. “But the opposite is more likely to come true. Rather than shooting RFID chips into people, people with RFID chips already in or on them will be shot. People with RFID chips in their clothing, books, bags or bodies could be targeted by “smart projectiles” that will zero in on that particular Smart.”

On the other side, Gilmore points out, freedom fighters could also use RFIDs mounted on tyres to ensure roadside bombs only went off when enemy troops were driving over them.

“Welcome to automated personal death,” Gilmore writes. “Courtesy of RFID and leading shortsighted global corporations, with government encouragement.”

If civil libertarians and privacy advocates can envision such nightmares, shouldn’t governments start planning to prevent such ill dreams from coming true?

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