Home
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]
 

 
Rank Up Rank Down Votes:  +130
  • Print
  • Share

Comments

Sort By:
May 7, 2013
Scott, as to your latter comment: what happens when a democracy starts trending toward a dictatorship, using something like gun control as one of the bulwarks of its desire to control the people?

Now, as you know, we're not a democracy; we're a republic. The reason the founders chose that form was that they felt a democracy was too volatile. One of the historical situations they considered was the Peloponnesian War. That war was waged by the people's whim. When the people wanted the war to go forward it did. When they decided it shouldn't be waged, they pulled back. Back and forth, back and forth.

So the founders chose a republic as our form of government to give us a lot of buffers against the temporary passions of the people. At the same time, they limited the power of the federal government. They did that so regardless of how much desire those in goverment had, there was only so much they could do, because there were only certain things they were allowed to do.

For your information, there is a growing anti-semitic movement in Europe. So now that they've taken away the weapons from the Jews (and everyone else), and then gangs kill them (not too much yet, but growing), you leave the Jewish people (and everyone else) unable to defend themselves. Not from the government, even if the governments look the other way; but dead is still dead.

And consider Great Britain. It's an island with a condensed population. It's an island, so it's more difficult to get weapons in. It has a condensed population, so police can cover a lot of people in a small area. The US has a land population of about 32 per square kilometer. The UK has a land population of 250 people per square kilometer. A police force large enough to cover the UK can't cover that big an area in the US.

My point is that we are not Europe. We are unique, from the founding of our country to our unique size and regional demographics. So if you want to relate us to Europe, then you should also tell us the differences. Otherwise, your points may be taken as a less than reasonable attempt to link two countries that have extreme differences.

 
 
-9 Rank Up Rank Down
May 7, 2013
Give me a law against adultery and I can have every Republican in Congress in the public pillory and stocks in three hours. It might seem an odd quotation in a discussion of crime and punishment, but the French artist Delacroix said "L'art c'est la sélection." Art is selection. The frame is the real work of genius. The content is trivial and well within the means of a compitent hack.

My ancestors were Salem Village witch hunters. They were the witches. They were the clergy. Pick your victims carefully and you can make a real killing in crime. Especially if you are the judge, jury and executioner.

You know how the Witch Hunts ended--they accused a very rich man in Boston. He sued them. He sued them. An option poor people and slaves do not have. But a rich man can counter-sue you even on a heresy charge, and dammit, that still means something. It means you could be the one who pays, not the accused.

I love the courts. They are one of the least effective institutions of mankind, but time and again, persistent judges have turned away the hand of tyranny by making life too hot for the false accusers and the partisan parties who may or may not be right about their charges, but are wrong in their partisan application of the violence of the law.

If you don't like the way the Shirts and Skins are running the USA, why don't you sue the bastards? You may find a wise and honest judge, or at least one who is corrupt in the right general direction.
 
 
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
May 7, 2013
"Now we learn that the government might be recording every phone call, email, and text of every American citizen."

That one word "might" shows how blissfully naive and unaware Scott Adams is of the historic and present scope of government surveillance. He seems to have never heard of Echelon, which not only might, but did and does search every word spoken or transmitted by electronic communications not only in the USA but in the the other countries which are part of Echelon: Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand. Every telephone call, every fax, every communication was being scanned when Scott Adams still had a full head of hair. This is one of those crazy conspiracy theories that is NOT compete bumpf, is documented and historical fact.

Long before even World War II's creation of the military-industrial-media-congressional complex which Eisenhower warned you about in his departing speech, Ma Bell was only to happy to allow the government to listen in on any calls that might interest the government security apparatus--then much smaller and requing people listening with headphones and notepaids, rather than computers capable of data-mining every syllable of every word of every communication in electronic or recordable form.

It doesn't matter that the police can't enforce the laws against sodomy or prostitution or illegal gambling. They get to choose WHEN they enforce these laws and against whom. That is a far greater power than mere "policing" ever was because it is unlimited in power, scope and purpose.

The Adams thesis that you can overwhelm the law enforcement agencies is arrant nonsense. They've never been able to lock up every criminal for even the rarest and stupidest crimes. They're only interested in having that option.

It's the political option that is dangerous, not the actual crime fighting.

There are innumerable unenforceable laws on the books, many of them just plain silly or obsolete, but the police love them because many of them (such as drug offenses) don't require a warrant from a judge. In fact, since the egregious Patriot Acts were passed, little or nothing requires the police go to a judge and prove probable cause for suspicion. Habeas Corpus? Dosn't exist any more. The Magna Charta? Never said what people attribute to it. The Constitution: means one thing when a Republican is in the White House and the same damn thing when a Democrat is in the White House.

What I regret is not the government having carte blanche to be a tyranny, but the tyranny being extended to every damn fool and scoundrel on Earth. It was a heinous error to put cameras in cellphones and then give EVERYBODY one. There is no privacy and thus no rights or freedoms. As Saint Paul said "All have sinned." and because all are sinners, all can be brought up before the Inquisition at any time for any reason and be found guilty of whatever they confess to thinking it will end the torture and the fear with the respite of death.

I am not one of these idiot conspiracy theorists. This is a reasoned and documented statement of fact: you are less free now than you were in 2000. You were less free in 2000 than under Nixon (that greasy schmuck).

People were more free when the government didn't want anything from them but whatever the Church and the Landlord didn't take. The king couldn't give a tinker's damn about your privacy unless you were the wrong religion or some sort of dissident. But now everything is fair game like in Asimov's "Fahrenheit 451", because there is a lobby that objects to everything you do.

They don't need a lot of surveillance cameras, except to remind you that they are watching you. They can use your cellphones, your laptops, everything with a GPS device in it to track you and everybody around you.

The internet was created by DARPA, a Government agency which was not concerned in the least about privacy because the web was intended to tie the governmnet agencies as party of the first part to the universities as party of the second part in the government contracts of the Cold War, which as you know, was a universal war beyond anything conceived of by Baron Von Clauswitz. A perpertual, domestic war with no enemies, no civilians, just "enemy operatives" who were guilty of treason until proven guilty of nothing else of interest.
 
 
May 6, 2013
"In general, whenever privacy is lost in a democracy, it creates an opportunity for freedom to increase. "

One of those very simple rules that apply 4% of the time. (But hey at least it's simple.)
 
 
May 6, 2013
I generally agree, I just don't like it.

The only thing I would add is the inevitable onslaught of the tyranny of the majority. All of your examples of things that were considered evil that are now mainstream also had the benefit of culture shifting in a direction that more openly accepted those things. I don't think thats coincidence, but I don't think its causal either. I thin kthis was primarily due to very successful and sustained attempts at shaping public opinion
Take smoking for example. Millions of smokers lost their "freedom" not because they lost their political power, but because they lost the war of public opinion.

My conclusion... Anyone who identifies themselves as being a committed part of something that the culture is moving away from should either really start fighting the public opinion battle, or get ready to be an outcast at best and a new kind of criminal at worst.

You are right, I just don't think its good.
 
 
May 6, 2013
It could be we're just in a transition phase now with respect to enforcement of law. Today it looks like most victimless crimes are edging towards legality, but the tide could always turn the other direction.

Say that religion makes a big comeback, like it did in Afghanistan. The Christian Taliban (or whatever they'll call themselves) could reverse gay, weed and p o r n legal trends. And this new enforcement would cost virtually nothing, because (as aegl alluded), it could be automated. Right now we have the mindset that a criminal must carry a record and a jail term/fine. But it wouldn't have to be that way.

For example, if a completely automated system caught you speeding on a country road, as punishment maybe your car's computer would slow you down to 10 miles below the speed limit for a few days. Or if you were 14 and caught smoking a cigarette, you may have to suffer with some lag time in your online gaming for a few days. Or if you own a major bank and stole a few million dollars from a taxpayer bailout, you might have your personal credit cards rejected at restaurants for a week. All automated.

 
 
-2 Rank Up Rank Down
May 6, 2013
Good post. I can see where the use of Google Glass turns into some kind of jerk shield, it would prevent some bad or criminal action from happening to the wearer since the perpetrator would know their actions could be uploaded for public shaming, to an employer, or to the authorities.

I look forward to the day when somebody is wearing Glass gets mugged, calls 911 while it is in progress and a crime recognition app tells you the person's name and amount of time they will serve for the act. Then you could ask the crook to be friends with you on Facebook so can post the video event to their page too.
 
 
May 6, 2013
Wow, for the first time I probably agree with what you wrote - both the premises and the conclusion. I'd alter it slightly, but that's just picking nits.

So, here I am picking some nits, clarifying, blah, blah blah:
1. A loss of privacy also reveals the truth about taboo subjects (gays, weed, !$%*!$ educating the masses. General knowledge of the truth makes it harder for detractors to vilify those things when the foundation of their argument is Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt.

2. General acceptance doesn't translate directly to changes in laws. That can take decades or perhaps even centuries. The good news is that selective enforcement brings up the specter of prejudice, so even if an antiquated law is used there is a good chance the case will get thrown out.

3. Those who know their tech will get away with crimes. There is always a way. IQ has no correlation with honesty, so perhaps only techies will be able to get away with crimes.

4. Even if the U.S. is recording everything, it's not admissible in court without having a warrant before-hand. Otherwise everything is fruit of the poisonous tree. Poisonous fruit can be useful if it's more important to prevent a pending crime than to prosecute someone, but from the article you linked I'm under the impression that it is often used to give investigators an idea of who, what, when, and where so they can be at the right place at the right time to gather legitimate evidence. This would be considered fruit of the poisonous tree if the prosecution knew about it, but I would guess the prosecution doesn't give up that information. If it were proven in court that the U.S. is collecting information without a warrant I believe they would be ordered to stop. It might even taint prior proceedings and force a bunch of criminals to be released. Maybe.

5. The Tsarnaev guy was on a watch list and had been investigated by both the CIA and FBI. They may have had a warrant and just kept on tapping and tapping and tapping. There is at least some reason to believe they could have legally recorded all the conversations and e-mail from him, his friends, his neighbors, anyone related to him, and anyone in his household.

Ok, enough. All I'm really trying to say is Loss of privacy keeps misinformation from spoiling your fun.
 
 
May 6, 2013
Having a personal all-encompassing security system which you can monitor as you need sounds like a great idea to most individuals, I would guess.

Having an a public all-encompassing security system which is collecting unknown amounts and types data about you and everyone else, and is run by people you do not know or necessarily trust, I think eventually we will hit a breaking point.

However, given that once a system has a power, they rarely relenquish it, it will be interesting to see how that plays out. [ominous sci-fi movie soundtrack music here]
 
 
May 6, 2013
An interesting post.

I guess it all depends on how you define freedom. A reductio ad absurdum argument concerning your post would be to propose that maximum freedom occurs when privacy disappears. In other words, if we just allow government to know everything we ever do, we become free from government. I don't believe that idea holds up.

We limit our freedom by giving government more power over us, not less. Power is money. The more money we allow government to take and to spend, the less freedom we have to make choices for ourselves. Statesmen have warned us of this since our country's founding. They built a republic with a federal government allowed to do only certain things and no more via the first written constitution ever created. It was a nice try, but it didn't work. Our federal government is huge and growing out of control. It ignores the restrictions placed on it by the supreme law of our land, and does pretty much whatever it wants to do.

As Thomas Jefferson said, "The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield, and government to gain ground." Benjamin Franklin said, "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." Why did they say these things? Because they had seen them happen. They also had the lessons of history to study in forming their view of how a government should have its power limited by the people.

Today, some of our citizens don't see any problem with government controlling their lives. They see government as their loving parent who wants to do everything to make them happy, as long as they live by the rules government gives them. No Big Gulps. No salt. No choice.

I believe that government would love to remove your privacy, and not because it would somehow magically increase your freedom. I believe that just the opposite would happen. You would be free only to do as you are told to do by government. One size fits all. Everyone acting the same, under the benevolent watchful eyes of Big Brother.

House minority leader Nancy Pelosi reflected this idea when she said (paraphrasing here, but accurately) that elections shouldn't matter so much. In her view, if the Republican party would just adopt the positions and views of the Democrat party, then everything would be just fine. President Obama made a speech to graduates of Ohio State University a couple of days ago. In it he said that I'm wrong. That government isn't a "separate, sinister entity that's at the root of all our problems." And, "You should reject these voices [who are telling you this]."

Oh, really? I recall an old saying: "When someone tells you how honest they are, you should put your hand on your wallet." The president seems to be saying that honest debate and any difference of opinion concerning government's power should be rejected out of hand. Nothing to see here. Please move along, kids.

My point here is that government wants you to have freedom only if you stay in compliance with what goverment tells you to do. It is understandable, then, that giving them more information about our daily goings-on may have the opposite effect than the one Scott is proposing. The bigger government gets and the more of our money it takes and spends, the more power they will have over us.

One last Jefferson quote: "When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty." Were he alive today, he may very well have said, "When the people allow their government to convince them they have nothing to fear from it, they are asking to be tyrannized."
 
 
-6 Rank Up Rank Down
May 6, 2013
I don't see how the government taping you out in public is a violation of privacy. You are in Public not in private. Now taping your conversations in your home, or at a relative/friend's house without a warrant is a violation. There should be cameras everywhere outside it is called being out in public, that is why things you would normally do legally at home are sometimes illegal in public.

[From a legal perspective, no one has privacy in public. But from a practical perspective, if you walked down the sidewalk yesterday and no one had a reason to remember you, it was as good as privacy, at least in hindsight. -- Scott]
 
 
+9 Rank Up Rank Down
May 6, 2013
Interesting and thought-provoking. I'd say you are correct about some norms changing - we're already seeing it. But, as others have said, it will allow for selective/arbitrary enforcement. That's more scary than comforting.

Regarding guns specifically, the fear of registration is not about burglary, it's about authoritarian government - which is the concern in this debate. Step 1: register all guns; Step 2: collect them. Don't think it can happen? It happened just last century in one of the world's leading economies (Germany). For that matter, they first registered Jews, too. Merely registering is harmless... until isn't. It happened in India in the previous century: "Among the many misdeeds of the British rule in India, history will look upon the act of depriving a whole nation of arms, as the blackest." -- Mahatma Gandhi

For the record, I'm in favor of registering hand-guns - which most states require, and which account for nearly all gun violence in this country. The number of crimes committed by long arms (rifles and shotguns) is miniscule, yet these would be the most useful by a militia against an oppressive government. To me this makes the demarcation obvious: register handguns, but not long arms.

I realize this is only one point, but I wonder about the potential for government abuse of all of such information.
 
 
+11 Rank Up Rank Down
May 6, 2013
But robots are going to be ubiquitous (from your other threads). So the government doesn't have to send the police out to arrest you when you openly commit a crime in view of a video camera. It can just send RoboCop or a drone.

Or perhaps the whole process will be automated. You view some !$%* on your laptop that violates some local statute. A camera in the coffee shop sees what you are looking at and identifies you by the wifi signature of your laptop and the blutooth address of your phone. Trial and sentence are automatic. You receive a text message telling you the fine has been auto-deducted from your bank account.
 
 
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
May 6, 2013
Consider that acts of terror are meant to inject fear into the hearts and minds of as many citizens as possible. Typically while some of the purpetrators may try not to get caught, it would also seem as evidenced by suicide bombers and those in the planes on Sept 11th (and many others) the majority don't care if they do, or if they even die in the attempt. The single minded purpose of the act is, again, psychological warefare. Thus a clandestine act of terror is rather pointless. Consequently a terrorist wants as many cameras around as possible. They want the most graphic of all evidence burned into the synapses of as many people as possible. So, not only will video cameras not deter a terrorist attack, on the contrary it could even encourage certain destinations.
 
 
+14 Rank Up Rank Down
May 6, 2013
As long as you aren't doing anything the government would consider subversive like suggesting changing the economic system to a more fair one, trying to protect the environment, trying to run for office without being properly in the pockets of the richest and most powerful, talking to a Muslim person, opposing wars where we murder confused and terrified innocent foreigners, suggesting we should not have an all-encompassing police state that tapes everything you do/say/type, etc.

I agree with the other posters that the laws will then just be arbitrarily enforced regarding people the system considers dangerous. If you read some of the CIA reports on government trafficking cocaine in the US, you realize that they don't actually care about the drug problem since they were willing to use the funds of selling it to US citizens to finance the Contras. Considering that basically everyone will have said/typed something stupid/unelectable that is now possessed by the government, there will never be a legitimate attempt again at gaining political power unless you're already an insider who will defend the status quo and doesn't need to worry about them bringing forth something you've said.

Essentially, we've agreed to give total power to the government and make opposition impossible. If they choose to be a friendly dictator, then yeah, your optimism may be warranted. However, the US Constitution is kinda based on the idea they probably won't be.
 
 
May 6, 2013
Will it be a crime if distractions from Google Glass make me crash my Segway?
 
 
+24 Rank Up Rank Down
May 6, 2013
I am not sure that laws will always evolve to reflect what is practical. If a law is on the books that everyone breaks it allows law enforcement to arrest anyone the feel like - useful when they want to suppress a social movement or remove the leaders of an organization that isn't itself illegal.
 
 
May 6, 2013
That's a very clever observation, I think the first time I've seen it. When a shunned behavior becomes more openly preformed, and it turns out there is too much of it to effectively punish or vilify, it becomes accepted. Given the stated examples it's hard to argue with the hypothesis.
 
 
May 6, 2013
Absolutely, excellent post. A lot of people are loudly complaining about Google Glass, but they're all missing the point. Glass may succeed or it may fail, and it doesn't really matter. I can't imagine wanting to use this iteration of it. The only change that happens is that it's now in your face that you have no privacy, whereas before you didn't have to think about the fact that you are constantly on camera. Scarier things that Glass are on the horizon, so it's time for some people to buckle up. I don't want people reading my emails, but in the end analysis, do I care? Not really. It will be like a realization of the original, self-centered, childish fantasy we're all born with: solipsism. When a big central computer brain pours over our every communication, we each become the center of a secret universe we didn't know we were a part of.
 
 
May 6, 2013
But won't technology also offer more ways to conceal your activities (or at least your identity when you engage in those activities)? There will always be people who prefer to hide what they are doing (politicians, cheating spouses, politicians cheating on their spouses, etc), I think there'd be a strong market for the ability to hide who you are when you're doing certain things.

Plus, the libertarian in me takes issue with your assumption that a wider range of activities currently illegal will become legal. I think it's more likely that enforcement of the law will simply become arbitrary, rather than the government issue more liberty to people. If everyone is a criminal, law enforcement can then simply pick and choose who they want to punish.
 
 
 
Get the new Dilbert app!
Old Dilbert Blog