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.comment: On the Outlaw Trail with Linux - page 3

The Mainstream Is Good, Right?

  • February 14, 2001
  • By Dennis E. Powell

The day before, I was out in search of the components necessary to build some custom cables (which one used to be able to get just about anywhere, but which now need to be ordered) when I heard a radio advertisement for Chevrolet automobiles, or, more particularly, the Onstar electronics they contain. And it sounded pretty good: If you get lost, for instance, you push just one button and someone will tell you where you are and how to get out of there. If your car is stolen, they'll find it for you. They can even lock and unlock your doors. Pretty neat, huh?

For most people, probably so. But it sent chills down my spine.

The whole thing is tied to the Global Positioning System, which has recently lifted the block that had previously prevented extreme precision. Added to this is two-way communications, including remote control. In short, you can be tracked to within inches, or at least your car can, if it has this gadgetry aboard. The more extremely paranoid among us will instantly jump to the obvious conclusion -- an opening for totalitarianism -- but I offer something a little milder: What happens when this technology becomes the standard, and you receive a speeding ticket in the mail every time you exceed the speed limit? What happens when your every movement is recorded and archived, available perhaps online for a fee to anyone? What happens when someone else decides whether you can get into your car or, if you do, whether it will start?

Life will get better, sure, for the police and for the repo man, and for a good many people the tradeoff is a happy one -- in the same way that the risk of a macro virus or a spam attack is thought a small price to pay for pretty but unsecure operating systems with automatic execution of macros and HTML email.

There are a few people who will think I'm over-reacting here, that industry and government are our friends and they would never do anything to harm us. You would think so, but the evidence points elsewhere: If I honk the horn in the truck at a car that is about to slam into me, and the car goes ahead and does so, I'll be guaranteed at least a broken wrist, because the government-mandated airbag, two of which are installed in the truck at $800 per (literally) pop, is right under the horn. There are cases of passengers in airbag-equipped ars getting their heads lopped off by the airbag covers when the bags exploded. One cannot imagine that these people's last thoughts had to do with how happy they were to have the government watching out for them.

And there are those who would say that "the people" would never stand for government taking advantage of the two-way and GPS tie-ins to motor vehicles to spy on their owners. Look: Demagoguery works. There are actually large numbers of people in the United States who say that they would not like it if their taxes were reduced! Even a cursory scan of history, even the history of the last century, provides ample evidence that it's easy to get broad popular support for things that are on their face illogical and unsupportable. Those who objected, who chose the path of reason and logic, soon enough found themselves members of "an extreme fringe group," yet they hadn't gone anywhere, hadn't changed their minds about anything.

Government and industry are not, actually, our friends, except in the areas -- few in number and narrow in scope -- where their goals and ours coincide. That's why the founding fathers put together a Constitution and Bill of Rights designed not to give government power but to limit the power of government. The philosopher James Burnham many years ago articulated the truism that it's impossible to do just one thing -- that you'll perhaps achieve the desired effect, but you'll achieve some unanticipated effects as well. The convenience of having a voice in your dashboard tell you where you are comes with the risk of anyone being able to track you down, for good or ill. The convenience of macros that execute automatically when they arrive in an email message is counterbalanced by vulnerability to attack. Some -- me -- would say more than counterbalanced.

And people who recognize these things or, Heaven help us, anticipate them, are thought generally to be a little bit tainted, off in the fever swamps, outlaws.

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