- - Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Not everyone welcomes the 15 minutes of fame to which everyone is said to be entitled. Europeans disenchanted with the public spotlight dogging their Internet presence petition for the right to be forgotten. Hermits everywhere just want to be left alone. Americans simply claim they have a right to privacy.

However described, the custom of living within chosen boundaries — without having to relinquish a surveilled image or a bit of flesh to state authority — is rapidly fading. There are legitimate reasons for officialdom to covet the personal information of a private citizen, but forfeiture of identifying data threatens to make criminal suspects of us all.

In San Francisco, the city’s Board of Supervisors is wrestling with the moral legitimacy of equipment that identifies a person merely passing by in public places. One supervisor has proposed a measure that would restrict the city’s use of electronic surveillance, including facial recognition technology. “I have yet to be persuaded that there is any beneficial use of this technology that outweighs the potential for government actors to use it for coercive and oppressive ends,” says supervisor Aaron Peskin.

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Some places have already slipped far down the slippery slope toward 24/7 surveillance. A Chinese surveillance company has been found to be tracking the movements of some 2.5 million residents of the autonomous region of Xinjiang and its Uyghurs who prize whatever scrap of independence a Chinese citizen may still have, reports Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post.

The wholesale spying was discovered by a Dutch security expert who noticed a security breach in the system. After observing the names, ID card codes, birthdates of individuals linked to their geographical movements, he blew the whistle on SenseNets Technology, a Chinese facial-recognition firm.

America is not yet China, but some U.S. authorities are pushing identification methods of a cleverly intrusive kind. In Arizona, state Sen. David Livingston has introduced legislation that would require certain job applicants to provide their DNA for inclusion in a state database. This would include school teachers and volunteers.

At least 16 states allow the FBI to have access to driver’s license photograph databases, according to a 2016 study at Georgetown University. With the integration of facial recognition technology, federal authorities can treat millions of innocent Americans as criminal suspects as they comb through files in search of actual criminals. “We believe facial recognition technology is the most uniquely dangerous surveillance mechanism ever invented,” argue Northeastern University professor William Hartzog and Rochester Institute of Technology philosopher Evan Selinger, writing in Medium, an online news site.

The integration of visual surveillance with digital archiving of personal data of the law-abiding is particularly problematic. Equally disturbing is the expanding use of testing systems that analyze and store a target’s unique genetic blueprint.

Rapid DNA, a portable automated DNA-processing machine, appears in numerous American police departments, enabling the cops to analyze a person’s genetic blueprint on the spot. The technology was enabled in 2017 when President Trump signed the Rapid DNA Act.

The “magic box” requires little more than the skills of a “minimally trained” police officer who knows how to take a cell sample from a suspect’s cheek. The test may be administered to anyone deemed “suspicious,” with the caveat that a targeted person agree to participate. Such volunteers should beware that DNA results could be included in a database accessible to law enforcement agencies nationwide.

If innocent citizens identified for nothing more serious than driving with a broken tail light are to see their vital data included with data of convicted criminals, the notion of “pre-crime” as set out in the 2002 movie “Minority Report,” is no longer the stuff of fiction and fantasy, but of chilling reality.

DNA testing has gone viral as millions of Americans have been drawn to the prospect of uncovering the details of their family history in the fading recesses of remembrance. Curious customers can purchase test kits from biotechnology firms such as Ancestry and 23andMe, with the promise that privacy rules will keep their genetic profiles safe from prying eyes. But if rules are made to be broken, so the folk wisdom goes, it’s likely only a matter of time until this flimsy assurance of DNA privacy is breached. When law enforcement comes calling with a stated need for access to company databases in order to track down culprits, the genetic signatures of countless citizens may be subject to easy government intrusion.

The 18th century framers of the U.S. Constitution held a clear sense of the boundaries that preserve the right to privacy. But it’s far from a safe bet that even traces of those limits can endure as 21st century technology captures identities in image and essence.

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