Saturday, January 30, 2016

Microchip your Pets!

The headline speaks for itself: Office implants employees with microchips.

Don't worry. Epicenter assures us that employees at the Swedish office building were "offered" the surgery; it was "entirely voluntary:

(Guardian Coverage)

What if the implants were mandatory? Will this bear a new era of foregone civil liberty, with a proprietary (unknowable) piece of technology embedded where it can track, record, measure and transmit you only to the limit of contemporary technology?

Of course this is where civil libertarians will focus - and it is a reasonable area of focus, but it is not the most egregious example of such an authoritarian, undemocratic future. This is not happening in a vacuum - companies and governments will probably step very lightly in implementation, at least where they lack impunity, due to the potentially high profile of such implants.

Considering the opportunity presented by smartphones as tracking devices, it may not even be very necessary as a kind of espionage - possession of a cellphone, and then officer use of Stringray technology, can pinpoint your general area and then your location in a house respectively. Additionally, it has been made clear that the NSA bulk data collection was never limited to metadata (remember that is the "innocuous" data: the times, participants, length etc. of phone calls).

While civil libertarians at the time debated what metadata could tell us about a cell phone user, the reality was that the actual content of calls, and texts, and online communications, were being recorded completely and with trailing/marginal data intact. Much like the phantom "Taliban" in the Kunduz MSF hospital, the metadata "limit" was a rushed, dishonest mischaracterization of the facts meant to indemnify the government and private actors responsible. The truth, confirmed by Wikileaks and Snowden both, in documents tacitly confirmed by gov't statement, is that whole "trunks" of the internet were/are copied fully and constantly.

Now, NSA has scaled back its illicit involvement in bulk data collection, which was illegal from the start of the program, but has now shifted to private (contracted) collection, storage and dispersal of the data. In fact, it is safer and less damaging to civil liberty to have that controlled by a (democratic) state with strong data protection - countless private firms, with different data processing models, are less capable/likely to protect (and destroy) the data. While illegally acquired, your personal data should neither be offered to other private parties by shoddy protection, sale, or otherwise.

The threat to democracy

As important as privacy is, the real threat to civil liberties, democracies and civil society is in the underlying process of consent, an emergent property of which is represented in the "offering" of microchip implants to employees. Ostensibly, these implants are purely voluntary. In fact, if the labor market would bear such an obligation, it would also be mandatory for employment as normative/behavioral obligation enforced de facto as routine operation.

Submitting to such tracking devices is not the only "voluntary" choice companies expect their employees to make. 'Coming out' is also voluntary. Revealing your religion, practicing religious observations/dress, eating lunch, smoking a cigarette - all voluntary. And every single one of these have been met with intimidation from employers unwilling to approve of basic workers' rights, with a legal or legislative response.

Legislation and law cannot solve the problem without an active, penetrating regulatory presence in the workplace. Simply put, without a positive enforcement of your right to be free of microchip implants, there is no reason for workplaces not to employ intimidation - be it overt, yet confined to the controlled dungeons of a modern workplace, or underhanded, normative behavioral expectations.

In public venues, human beings have a right to basic civil liberties. In a private workplace, the civil liberties you can expect to enjoy are not only limited legally, but those few (critical) liberties enshrined in law are easily circumvented.

That is because the market will bear this limitation on rights, as a cost of employment. If "everyone else" has microchips, you will need one, too. As the population is saturated with them, untold numbers of technologies - with no obligation to work for those lacking chips - will "innovate" by assuming its clientele all have the chips. Employers will front-load aptitude tests, made more efficient by accessing implant data - applicants who do not fit this mold will be dismissed as a matter of course, without malice.

That is how markets work: they enforce normative behavior by including it as a cost of employment, admission, etc.. Without the protection of law, or another form of civil society engagement, you can be expected to do anything - should the markets bear that price.  Regulations will mitigate only the abuses that could destabilize the market.

The alternative is democratic control over these venues. It's very simple: either you control your life when you go to the park, establishments or your work, or someone else does. Without a democratic voice and a voluntary right to choose what behaviors you will submit to, you risk becoming a vassal to a property holder - who in turn has the privilege of being your benefactor, thus adding guilt on top.

No level of political and economic awareness can stifle this guilt. It stems from a simple fact: you know that your benefactor (employer) is hosting and benefiting you with their own property. They could always ask for more, and would be in their rights to do so. The guilt comes from knowing that they have this awareness - your own awareness does not matter. If such a byzantine form of guilt can be immutable, how should you expect to resist market demands which are not simply feelings, but manifested, normative behaviors?

(NOTE: A previous version of this article read "Assange" rather than "Snowden")

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