In another forum, someone posted a link to this Seattle Times story about how the Army is building databases of people they want to recruit. I mumbled the following, and for some reason I feel the need to cross post it here.
However one chooses to weigh the benefits and ill of databases of information about us, it is foolish to imagine that we can prevent having information collected and shared. If we are to prevent slipping into the nightmare that our darker futurist writers have foreseen, it will not be by crying out against the technology or by fighting against specific abuses, but rather by collectively internalizing some principles that will control how information is used.
The most important principle we need to recognize is that personal information fundamentally belongs to the person it describes, not to the person who collects it. The logical conclusion of this principle is that it should be illegal for anyone to sell any information about us without our explicit, uncoerced consent. Although our current government seems to be catching up rapidly, it is the corporations' abuse of our personal data that is the greatest threat to our future freedom, and the corporate abuse would not be a problem if the corporations weren't making money trading property that fundamentally belongs to us and not to them.
The second principle is that we can't have a free society without actually believing in freedom as the foundation of society. This principle has two main implications, one about laws and the other about attitudes. In the first case, our society is burdened with a huge number of really stupid laws, laws which we just ignore (when we are aware of them) because we know
that we will never be called to account for violating them. Because the enforcement of sensible laws is a wholly legitimate use of whatever information is available, and people will never accept much limitation on the power to track down real criminals, we can't expect that the information that is collected won't be used against us, and for the most part we shouldn't. But in a world where Big Brother will always tell on us if we break a rule, it's vital that we actually think about what those rules should be, and make sure that no law restricts anyone's freedom more than absolutely necessary to preserve everyone else's. In the second case,
it is a natural human tendency to seek to impose our own tastes and preferences on everyone else, but we must learn that just because another person does something that violates our own ideas of what they should be doing (regardless of how much we may think those ideas come from some holy book or other) does not give us the right to act against them. The world of the future can only have real privacy if we can learn to not notice what other people don't want us to notice and to not worry about it when we do, until what they do crosses the line between merely offending a sensibility and actually doing a harm. This concept is not limited to sexual behavior, but sex provides the most obvious examples: If we can't learn that whatever any number of consenting individuals wish to do with each other is their own business, and not a legitimate basis for oppressing or controlling them, we won't be able to have a free society at all as technology makes it impossible to conceal our comings and goings.