A relatively unsung virtue of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office is that its databases can be viewed collectively as a sort of cultural seismograph, registering interesting spikes of entrepreneurial enthusiasm. A patent application filed on January 10, 1995, is part of one such spike. Issued as U.S. Patent 5,629,678 ("Personal tracking and recovery system"), the patent is summed up in an abstract that begins,
Apparatus for tracking and recovering humans utilizes an implantable transceiver incorporating a power supply and actuation system allowing the unit to remain implanted and functional for years without maintenance. The implanted transmitter may be remotely actuated, or actuated by the implantee. Power for the remote-activated receiver is generated electromechanically through the movement of body muscle. The device is small enough to be implanted in a child.
Until recently such an idea might have seemed better suited to science fiction or political allegory than to real life. But in December of 1999 the patent was acquired by a Florida-based company named Applied Digital Solutions, and it is now the basis of an identity-verification and remote-monitoring system that ADS calls Digital Angel. "We believe the potential global market for this device," ADS announces on its Web site, "could exceed $100 billion."
New surveillance and information-gathering technologies are everywhere these days, and they're setting off all sorts of alarm bells for those who worry about the erosion of privacy. The result has been a clangor of dire predictions. Books have recently appeared with such titles as Database Nation: The Death of Privacy in the 21st Century (by Simson Garfinkel), The Unwanted Gaze: The Destruction of Privacy in America (by Jeffrey Rosen), and The End of Privacy: How Total Surveillance Is Becoming a Reality (by Reg Whitaker). Polls suggest that the public is gravely concerned: a 1999 Wall Street Journal-NBC survey, for instance, indicated that privacy is the issue that concerns Americans most about the twenty-first century, ahead of overpopulation, racial tensions, and global warming. Politicians can't talk enough about privacy, and are rushing to pass laws to protect it. Increasingly, business and technology are seen as the culprits. "Over the next 50 years," the journalist Simson Garfinkel writes in Database Nation, "we will see new kinds of threats to privacy that don't find their roots in totalitarianism, but in capitalism, the free market, advanced technology, and the unbridled exchange of electronic information."
Steven Levy, the author of Crypto: When the Code Rebels Beat the Government—Saving Privacy in the Digital Age, exchanges e-mail with Toby Lester about the impact of cryptography on our daily lives.
There's a general sense, too, that businesses in the modern free market are indifferent to the threats their new technologies pose to privacy. That sense seemed powerfully confirmed in early 1999, when Scott McNealy, the chief executive officer of Sun Microsystems, was asked whether privacy safeguards had been built into a new computer-networking system that Sun had just released. McNealy responded that consumer-privacy issues were nothing but a "red herring," and went on to make a remark that still resonates. "You have zero privacy anyway," he snapped. "Get over it."