Crime and Privacy - Dilbert Blog

Crime and Privacy

In 1997 I predicted in my book The Dilbert Future that someday all crimes would be solvable. My thinking was that video surveillance and other technology, such as electronic noses, would make it nearly impossible to get away with anything illegal.

There will always be crimes of passion, and there will always be insane criminals, and criminals who didn’t get the memo that crime doesn’t pay. And a few geniuses will always find a way to stay ahead of technology. Crime itself will never go to zero, but I’m going to double down on my prediction that technology will someday make it nearly impossible to get away with crime.

The Boston bombers were spotted on several security videos. That probably marked the point at which the public came to understand how ubiquitous video recording is. But you probably thought that sort of video surveillance is common only in cities.

Last year some presumed identity thieves went through the garbage cans on the streets in my quiet suburban neighborhood at about 3 AM. A least two neighbors produced home security video of the perps, taken from multiple angles facing the street. At some point, every home that has a security system will have video as a component. Law enforcement will know who comes and goes through nearly every front door.

Now we learn that the government might be recording every phone call, email, and text of every American citizen. At the moment, that information is used to fight terrorism. But one assumes law enforcement will someday use it more generally if they aren’t already.

In twenty years, the government will always know where your car is, the same way they can track your phone. Taxis will someday only take credit cards. Busses and trains will require you to swipe an ID, and so on. If you travel, the government will know where you went and how you got there.

Or suppose someday there are enough people wearing Google Glass that nearly every crime is recorded in real time by observers and loaded to the cloud automatically. I could imagine future versions of Glass keeping a one week running record of everything you see, just in case you ever want to play it back.

Eventually, physical cash will go away, and with it the easy means for criminals to profit. Once all money is digital, how do you buy illegal services? If you’re following the Bitcoin story, you know that Bitcoin technology has potential for illegal transactions, but for that reason I see the government finding a way to clamp down on it.

I can also imagine big improvements in the area of personal identification. Imagine, for example, having a smartphone, an iWatch, and a smart car. When you go to the store, the cashier will someday automatically know that you, your car, your watch, and your phone are all in the same place. That is nearly a 100% identity check. When you approach the cash register, I can imagine your phone automatically identifying itself and pulling up your photo on the register. In the future, when we are part cyborg, we won’t be using driver licenses for ID; we will use our proximity to our personalized hardware. (Someone already has that patent. I checked.)

In the near future, certainly in your lifetime, law enforcement will know every front door you entered and exited, where your car has been, where your phone has been, everything you’ve said by phone, text, or email, and everything you have purchased. You ain’t getting away with shit.

Another interesting phenomenon is that the Facebook generation has an entirely different view of privacy. When I was a kid, I could count on my classmates to keep their mouths shut if they saw me breaking a rule. Today, keeping your mouth shut isn’t even a thing. It went away when privacy did. In today’s world, if a high school kid does anything inappropriate in front of witnesses you can count on it reaching multiple parents in about a day. The filters are off.

On the plus side, I also predicted that a lack of privacy would lead to fewer activities being against the law. The only reason law enforcement can afford to act against drug users, or prostitution, or gambling, for example, is because only 1% of those crimes are detectable. If police could magically know every time someone violated a drug or prostitution law, the volume would be so high they would end up ignoring the entire class of crimes for purely practical reasons. And that’s where we’re heading.

Ironically, the more the government clamps down on individual privacy, the more freedom the residents will have. When the government can detect every sort of crime, it will be forced by public opinion and by resource constraints to legalize anything it can detect but can’t stop.

Porn has already moved into the mainstream. More states are making gay marriage legal. Weed is being legalized in various states. Promiscuity has entered the mainstream. And prostitutes with websites no longer try to hide their “escort” business.

I’m reminded of a banking saying: “If you borrow $100,000 from the bank, the bank owns you. But if you borrow $10 billion, you own the bank.” There’s a similar thing happening with privacy and your government. If you give up a little bit of privacy, the government owns you. But if you give up most of your privacy, the government loses its power over you.

Consider the effort to control legal handguns in the United States. Common thinking on this topic is that the more the government knows about your guns, the greater the risk to liberty. But my thinking is that gun sales will go through the roof if the government ever succeeds in tracking them. You don’t want to be on a list that says your house has the least firepower on your block.

I know from past posts on this topic that I’ll get a lot of down votes because you hate any thought of the government reducing your privacy. Let’s agree that we all have the same gut feeling that privacy is a good thing and we want to keep it. All I’m putting forward today is the idea that the less privacy you have, the more freedom you will have at the same time.

Consider the gay rights movement. The genius of the gay rights pioneers is that they increased their freedom by voluntarily reducing their privacy. By coming out in large enough numbers, gays took from the government the ability to vilify gay sex acts and gays in general. There were simply too many gay citizens to ignore or to jail. Society necessarily started to adapt, and continues to evolve.

In general, whenever privacy is lost in a democracy, it creates an opportunity for freedom to increase. The mechanism looks like this:

1.      A loss of privacy reveals how many people are involved in a particular activity and gives the public a chance to get used to it. (gays, weed, porn, etc.).

2.      Law enforcement has no practical way to handle all of the “criminals” who are now exposed. And even trying would look like a bad use of resources.

3.      Laws evolve to reflect what is practical. Formerly illegal activities become legal or tolerated because there is no practical alternative.

In the long run, privacy is toast. But what you will get in return is more personal freedom and less crime. That’s a trade that almost no one would voluntarily make, but I think the net will be good.

[Update: Based on your comments, I should clarify that losing privacy in a dictatorship is always bad (Germany registering guns). But in a democracy it works opposite because public opinion matters. Great Britain, for example, has strict gun laws and a relatively low risk of initiating the next Holocaust. – Scott]