Civil Society Declaration Amounts to Abandonment of Human Progress

A group calling for a moratorium on the deployment of RFID systems and other technologies completely misunderstands the nature of technology and the role it plays in an evolving world.
Published: October 28, 2009

An international civil society coalition has published a declaration, Global Privacy Standards for a Global World, that—among other things—calls for “a moratorium on the development or implementation of new systems of mass surveillance, including facial recognition, whole body imaging, biometric identifiers and embedded RFID tags, subject to a full and transparent evaluation by independent authorities and democratic debate.”

The declaration is signed by 68 organizations from around the world. While I agree with the coalition’s goal to assure individuals’ privacy, I’m amazed that the group has such a shallow understanding of the nature of technology and its role in furthering the welfare of the human race. Perhaps it pines for the days when people lived in caves, and no one worried about privacy.

The problem is that these organizations have a bias that some technologies are good and some are bad. They believe the ones they declare to be good should be funded by the government and promoted, while the ones they think are bad should be halted until they can be studied and sufficient safeguards can be put in place.

Technologies are neither good nor evil, however. They are tools that can be used for good or evil. It might seem to make sense to call for a moratorium on technology, but who chooses which technologies we should hold off using until they are studied? Should we have a moratorium on any technology that removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, for example? My guess is that the organizations that signed the civil society declaration would say no, because anything that reduces carbon dioxide would reduce global warming and would, thus, be a “good” technology.

Renowned physicist Freeman Dyson, however, argues that more carbon dioxide and warmer climates are actually healthy for plants, because they grow better in such conditions, and that could lead to greater food production and less hunger in the world. He also points out that forcing a massive reduction in carbon emissions would slow global economic growth and hurt the world’s poor.

Even if you disagree with Dyson, the reality is that we don’t know what the result of carbon-reducing technologies would be, any more than we know precisely what the impact of global warming will be. So perhaps we should put a moratorium on efforts to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere until we can conclusively prove that it would be good for the planet. Ridiculous? Of course it is—but no more ridiculous than banning any other technology until we understand its every ramification.

The fact is, enacting a moratorium on technology means ending technological advancement as we know it, because you can’t know the implications of a technology until you deploy it. If we had put a moratorium on the deployment and use of the Internet, would the people who studied it have envisioned the rise of social networking and come up with ways to protect privacy while allowing them to flourish? No, of course not—no one saw the phenomenon of social networking coming. Governments must allow technologies to be deployed and address problems as they arise. If we had done with the Internet what these groups are suggesting for RFID, there would be no Internet today—we’d still be studying its implications—and while there would have been greater privacy in the world, no one can argue the world would be better off.

The declaration’s description of RFID as a “mass surveillance” technology betrays the signatories’ bias. RFID could potentially be used as a surveillance technology, but that is definitely not how most companies are looking to deploy it (unless you consider asset- and inventory-tracking “surveillance”). Perhaps these groups are ignorant of the way RFID is being utilized, but I think there’s more to it than that: The people behind this civil society declaration just aren’t thinking very deeply about the issues.

These groups think privacy is good, and that any technology that could infringe on privacy is bad—and that’s a very simplistic view. Surveillance cameras are being used increasingly by governments around the world, and by retailers to reduce theft. These can be abused. Governments can, for instance, use cameras to track political enemies. But what if cameras bring down the overall crime rate in a troubled urban area, and enjoy the wholehearted support of those who live in that area? Are the cameras bad? Should they be removed, as the coalition suggests, until every possible implication of their use can be fully studied?

What if, heaven forbid, the daughter of one of the people behind the declaration were kidnapped on a street corner, or in the parking lot of a shopping mall? Would that person argue that the police should not review the tapes to see if the kidnapper could be identified, because other people might be identified as well, and that it would infringe on their privacy? If the tapes did reveal the identity of the kidnapper and the girl was rescued, would the signer still argue that there should be a moratorium on such surveillance technologies?

Technology issues are simple when you view them through the prism of your own biases, but the reality is that these issues are far more complex than opponents imagine, and it’s laughable to think a bunch of people can sit around and determine how or when new technologies should be used for the benefit of all mankind (Prometheus, after all, never anticipated that there would be arsonists). Let’s hope, for the good of humanity, that the calls for a moratorium go unanswered.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below. To read more of Mark’s opinions, visit the RFID Journal Blog or click here.