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Privacy tops casualty list in the Code War

SHARE Privacy tops casualty list in the Code War

THE COLD WAR MAY be ancient history, but the Code War is only now beginning to heat up.

As more Americans do business online, Internet commerce has created new worries about the security of personal information. Many consider encryption - the technology used to encode information and keep it private - to be the solution. As the networked world wires together our newly digital dens, we are drawn into a struggle with as great a consequence as the geopolitical one that shaped the last half century.This war has even embarked on its own escalating arms race. Recent revolutions in cryptography - a kind of information-age Trinity Site detonation - have left the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Defense Department, the Internal Revenue Service, big business and the private citizen all scrambling to redefine what may be public, what can stay hidden and who gets to hold the keys to the encrypted material.

Tucked away in this fight is the tacit concession that our lives are already taking place in a new kind of public sphere: the realm of the universally searchable archive, a map as large as the place it describes, dense with records on every recordable transaction.

So complete is the ascendance of universal bookkeeping that we have long since forsaken any hope of preserving the private - that part of life that goes unregistered - and now concentrate all rear-guard efforts on securing the secret - the registered data that only authorized personnel can call up. We have conceded the right to be recorded, and we quibble only over the question of access.

People who grow alarmed at what privacy they may be giving up each time they use the Internet have not yet fully grasped how much they routinely reveal each time they dial the phone, subscribe to a magazine, join a club, draw a salary, enter a hospital, hook up to cable television or use their credit cards to make the most innocent of purchases, even a throwaway novel at their local independent bookstore. (Ask the White House staff.)

The audit trail of the individual life is closing in on that moment when each person's every living day will become a Bloomsday, recorded in complete detail and reproducible with a few deft keystrokes.

We have already reached a point where even the absence of data is itself an incriminating datum that can and will be held against you. Recently I moved and bought a house, my first. I paid cash, as I have for everything I've ever bought. I've never taken out a loan or owned a credit card.

In part, I am the product of parents who did not believe in debt. But I also vowed 20 years ago - 21-year-olds are capable of endless naivete - to leave as little of myself hostage to digital fortune as possible. Privacy might be a vanishing illusion, but back then, one could still keep the public record to a minimum.

But a problem arose when I tried to get a phone line for my new home. When I called the local phone company, a voice on the computerized menu system indicated that my call might be recorded, to serve me better.

A cheery operator took my order and entered all my numbers into the proper fields on his screen. Then cheer vanished in the face of the available data.

He explained that my credit history showed a small problem. Impossible, I assured him. I've never used credit in my life. That, he informed me, was the problem. My lack of a borrowing record all but proved that I wasn't worth the risk.

Several faxes of once-personal documents, all transmitted over unscrambled lines, at last convinced the central computer of my phone-worthiness, and I succeeded in opening up yet another score of searchable records on my existence. I agreed to pay $2 a month to keep my number unlisted, know-ing full well that any self-respecting 13-year-old could pull it up in minutes from one of several dozen easily cracked servers.

Kafka, it struck me, was strictly minor league. Even the attempt to remain anonymous now reveals more about a life than any life can possibly hide.

The census-taking bureaucracy has raised havoc at least as far back as the days of Caesar Augustus. But institutionalized, safeguarded secrecy is in many ways a recent development. When most of life went unrecorded, the private life needed no special protection. As late as half a dozen generations ago, even notorious figures could live and die leaving only the scantiest trace in the imperial scrolls.

The rise of systematic record-keeping itself created the idea of a right to privacy. The technologies of writing, print, telegraphy, telephony and tape brought it into being. Now new technologies, far more fungible, leveraged and ubiquitous, are busy rendering the idea quaint.

So now we fight the battle of encryption, a war over who gets access to what data about whom. Years will pass before society will reach any meaningful consensus. But the larger war for a life lived off the record is already lost. Our drive to master matter, dictate time and defeat space has converged upon the relational database, the airtight public arena where we must hereafter live.

More and more, our data stand in for us. The portion of any life that goes unregistered is shrinking faster than the frailest rain forest. The ever-greater throw weight of collective life demands ever more precarious management. However select the circle of unauthorized browsers, however encrypted the files, our records will stand in judgment.

A long way down the pike - centuries from now, decades, next year - "private life" may, like "the soul," become a term that had some shared meaning once but vaporized under the press of material progress. It will seem at best a nostalgic artifact, collateral damage in the Code War, the price of securing a universally recorded, reproducible, remotely retrievable world.