William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Barcode People From Birth — Guest Post By Faith Reader

Despotism and tyranny wear many cloaks.  Modern Western leaders are above using raw, brute power to fulfill their desires.  Instead, they wheedle and whine and the public gives in, worn out and worse for the wear.  Thankfully, these days may soon be a thing of the past, if Elizabeth Moon gets her way.  The science fiction writer told the BBC last month:

“If I were empress of the Universe I would insist on every individual having a unique ID permanently attached – a barcode if you will; an implanted chip to provide an easy, fast inexpensive way to identify individuals.”

She goes on to say what a boon it would be wartime that soldier could differentiate between the opposing armies and the innocent civilians. It is a pity that she doesn’t think this through, and consider the advantage that bar-coded people would have for dictators with genocide on their mind.

Moon isn’t the first to come up with the idea of tagging the population, proving yet again that a bad idea never dies. She has tapped into something that appeals to the nanny-staters who positively drool at the prospect of having absolute power over every nook and cranny of everyone’s life. It is well known that most people are fools and will vote Republican, even if is against their interests. Therefore, they need to be lead around by the nose. “Everyone” doesn’t include those who hold the leash.

In the United States, many still cling to the idea that the people have supremacy over the government, and that the government is “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” In the last forty years (again, in the United States) there has been a reversal of who’s in charge, and the preponderance of evidence shows that the government rules the people, rather than the other way around.

It is neither the responsibility nor the obligation of the government supervise the non-criminal behavior of the people. If people pay their taxes and strive to obey laws, then the government ought to leave them alone so they can engage in their right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Just because having people tagged makes life easier for the government not only to “identify” everyone, but also to find tax cheats and detect other criminal activity is not a reason to implement a massive bar-coding scheme.

Recent history suggests that some politicians may resist the idea of electronic tagging. In New York State there was a flap about fingerprinting food stamp applicants. The mayor of New York City was all for it, but the governor believed that practice treated welfare applicants as criminals. Using the governor’s logic, bar-coding the public would be akin to treating them as criminals.

Although, if the Affordable Care Act passes muster with the U.S. Supreme Court, there could be a basis to open the door for electronic health surveillance. Maybe the technology isn’t there yet, but such a smart chip could monitor not only one’s vitals, but also whether if one imbibed more than 16 ounces of soda, enjoyed more than the daily quota of adult beverages, or smoked a cigarette.

Our founders recognized that such a grievous state of government surveillance and interference was possible, and they had the foresight to propose a way out when they drafted the Declaration of Independence:

“But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”

16 Comments

  1. Stosh from the Sticks

    4 June 2012 at 9:11 am

    Ummhh – we already come with an individual barcode – it’s called DNA.

    And I expect the technology for sampling, reading and identifying individuals by that means will soon likely be as cheap and convenient (if not cheaper and more convenient) than the sort of artificial ID’s under consideration.

    Granted it doesn’t facilitate electronic eavesdropping, though.

  2. William Sears

    4 June 2012 at 10:39 am

    Quote from the source “In war soldiers could easily differentiate legitimate targets in a population from non combatants.” Does Moon seriously think that the enemy will make their bar code translation file open source? Or maybe she thinks that your bar code would be updated when you join the army.

    Quote from above “Modern Western leaders are above using raw, brute power to fulfill their desires.” It always comes down to raw, brute power (force) or at least the threat of such. Otherwise we could all just ignore any government edict that we personally disagreed with.

    On the other hand, the more that any government tries to control the population the more that the reality slips through its fingers. This is why such governments degenerate into tyrannies whose only real purpose is power and wealth for the party elites.

  3. It is not usually wise to consider risks in isolation. There is never one single risk that must be minimized at the expense of all others.

    I don’t want a “barcode,” I want a vector of barcodes.

    Saying you are against “barcoding” people is a little like saying you are against giving people computer passwords. I’m not interested in putting anything of value on an account that doesn’t allow me to password protect it, and I’m not going to use the same password for every account.

    I’m not going to attend a university if the university won’t go to the trouble to be able to affirm that it was actually me that took all those classes and got all those good grades. And to protect me from having an impostor steal or take credit for my diploma. On the other hand, it’s no business of the university what my driving record is. So I want a unique barcode for each.

    The key to privacy is to stovepipe information. Things work much more efficiently when there is trust. No barcoding — no trust. Would you trust the content of a scientific paper if you had no way to “barcode” its peer-review process?

  4. Google and Apple already know everything you do.

  5. Tom, isn’t that more like they know everything you’re going to do?

  6. 49erDweet, Google is watching you.

    >> It is a pity that she doesn’t think this through, and consider the advantage that bar-coded people would have for dictators with genocide on their mind.

    I pity alarmists. They just love to scare themselves to death.

  7. You may not value your own privacy but others might value theirs. Most of us have things we’d rather not share publicly — even if it’s just a secret desire for transfats in a no-transfats allowed society. What may seem innocent today may not always be so and, even if not criminal, could still be used against you. The best way to minimize that is to limit dissemination. A universal ID makes not sharing all that much harder.

    The SSN is becoming a universal ID despite original intent against using it as such. Fortunately, it hasn’t yet gotten down to the level of allowing tracking of purchases and services.

    Today’s Facebook and Twitter crowd might just learn the hard way someday that their indiscriminate broadcasting today was a poor idea.

  8. Peregrine John

    4 June 2012 at 5:19 pm

    No, she’s definitely not the first to think of such a thing. In fact, almost 2000 years ago a guy named John, stranded on the Isle of Patmos, suggested a future where you’d have to present identity as a loyal subject to even engage in commerce.

  9. We are all in fact barcoded from birth — our DNA.

    Unlike a chip or tattoo it cannot be removed or faked.

    I expect that being able to use it as part of an ID check is not more than ten or fifteen years off.

    The only thing about it for totalitarian purposes is that it cannot be checked at a distance; the subject must be actually touched.

    The other thing about it is that it must be compared with a central database. Forging an ID will not concentrate on a document carried by the subject, but on tampering with the database.

    Without bogging down in technical details, the real issue is limiting the transactions that require ID.

    This is why cash is essential.

  10. Not just DNA. Fingerprints are (assumed) unique. The problem is not the assignment of a unique identifier. The problem is an identifier which can be used to link what are now essentially unlinkable facts allowing the construction of comprehensive and permanent profiles. Fingerprints and DNA don’t (currently) allow this. It’s the inevitable misuse that is the concern.

  11. Regardless of her stated solution, Moon’s justification does not require a pervasive universally unique identifier, but merely a way to differentiate between combatants and noncombatants. 

    In recent millennia, we have called this innovation a “uniform”.

    The benefit of a uniform is that, at some point, the conflict of the day will end, and the uniform can be removed and set aside.

    Uniforms assume that is war is the exception, Moon assumes war to be the rule.

  12. Richard Hill

    5 June 2012 at 2:48 am

    Who needs barcodes when face recognition is available and free?
    a few keystrokes and google yields…
    2 Sep 2006 – Download Face Recognition System – Face Recognition System is a free utility which will verify and recognize faces.
    We have 6 more years of progress. Maybe burkas will become fashionable for men also.

  13. Faith Reader

    5 June 2012 at 8:57 am

    Your DNA isn’t ringing off buzzers as you go through the airport or the EZ-pass lanes, or holding your banking information or job and salary history. While law enforcement uses DNA samples, and is expanding their ability to collect more, it really isn’t the best tool for surveillance, whereas an electronic chip can gather information 24/7.

  14. “Uniforms assume that is war is the exception, Moon assumes war to be the rule.”

    To be fair, she IS a sci-fi author :P .

    More seriously, what’s the difference between a government ID and the government asking Google et al for the data it needs? Given that Elizabeth Moon IS a sci-fi writer, let’s imagine a setting where people are surrounded by a cloud of personal data. Walk down the high street and shops will tailor adverts to you, robot waiters suggest items on the menu based on past visits to different restaurants… etc. Frankly it’s more like next Tuesday than the far future.

    Now there’s been a crime, and so the police go through the data of everyone at scene. People are identified, flagged as suspicious or not, etc. No government ID involved, or even necessary.

    Ah, but actually the crime in question was insulting His Supremacy in public.

    Point is, this issue is less about whether you have a personal ID or barcode than plain old fashioned government power. If the government wants to abuse its power, you’re in trouble whether you have a government barcode or personal data cloud.

  15. Mark says:
    7 June 2012 at 6:50 pm
    “Point is, this issue is less about whether you have a personal ID or barcode than plain old fashioned government power. If the government wants to abuse its power, you’re in trouble whether you have a government barcode or personal data cloud.”

    No, the point is that Moon is an authoritarian POS and the BBC *loves* her ideas.

  16. As so often, Art is way ahead of the moonies (admittedly, it’s often the other way ’round as well.) Musician Dave Davies used a Barcode for his face on his album AFL1-3603; in 1980…

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