CNN reported Monday that legislators in Indonesia’s Papua province were supporting a bill that would require “some” patients with HIV/AIDS to be chipped. The microchip implanted under the skin of these “sexually aggressive” patients would be used, Indonesian lawmaker John Manangsang reportedly indicated, to help authorities “identify, track, and … punish those who deliberately infect others.”
As is typically the case when technology is upheld as some panacea, some deus ex machina that will magically solve any and all ills regardless of context, the “technical and practical details still need to be hammered out,” according to CNN. This is a media euphemism for the sentence, “We have no idea just how such a chip network would or could work, but we have this vague idea that such patients could be microchipped and then tracked somehow so that we’ll know when they deliberately infect someone in some way.” There are any number of ways such a system can’t, won’t, or isn’t likely to work, at least not as envisioned, and these are just the practical aspects.
For example, an RFID chip can carry encoded data. It could act as a transceiver and be read at scanning points from a certain distance. But how do such scanning points help track infection? Will each and every resident of Papua be issued a chip scanner, presumably to employ before engaging in sexual relations? How will scanning an infected person’s chip after the fact help track his sexual activities? And if the chip is used simply as identification, when someone is accused of deliberately spreading infection after the fact, how does the presence of the microchip really amount to anything except a de facto set of permanent identity papers issued to only some citizens?
Attempts by governments to invade personal privacy are nothing new, and the pragmatic benefits of such infringements on civil rights are invariably touted as justification for them – regardless of the fact that utility is not moral justification. (Just because a new law may produce positive benefits does not mean it does not violate civil rights; this is why our Founding Fathers wisely gave us a constitutional republic rather than a pure democracy in which to live.)
Two weeks ago, for example, it was reported that Australia was implementing a mandatory Web filter that would affect Internet access to the entire country. Attempts by the Chinese Communist government to censor Internet access to a variety of sites deemed subversive are infamous and point to just how far that nation has to go to join the free, industrialized world. Now, however, it would seem the Australians are eager to embrace similar infringement on their citizens’ free access to information. (The mandatory filter would be used to block blacklisted sites deemed by the government to be “unwanted,” not just illegal.)
Horrifyingly totalitarian as that government censorship sounds, it is driven by precisely the same impulse as that which drives the Indonesian microchip proposal. Governments, in attempting to expand their ever-increasing powers over the lives of their citizens, always point to technology to expand the frontiers of their reach. That is the point, and that is the danger.
If Orwell’s dystopian vision of a society so controlling, so completely invasive, so totally public that even certain thoughts are illegal is ever to be realized, it will be achieved through the application of advanced technology. Using technology, actions that previously even the most liberal of left-wing statists would reject out of hand as too much, too strong, or too severe can be made convenient, subtle and even palatable. Technology makes censoring your Web access seamless and not at all intrusive – for the government simply makes sure you can’t see what it doesn’t wish you to see. Storm troopers with truncheons need not bang down your door and pry your mouse from your fingers. The same technology makes tracking your movements, your sexual partners, and your sexual preferences instantaneous and undetectable. The aforementioned storm troopers with the aforementioned truncheons need not bang down your door and demand to know if you are using a condom.
The misguided principle that is universally applicable across all such scenarios, however, is this notion that preventing you from getting at something you shouldn’t see, hear, or do – or watching you do so and then punishing you after the fact – is in any way an effective strategy for law enforcement, for societal development, or for socio-political progress. In attempting to insert government in every aspect of our lives, those who support such infringements of your civil rights are missing the most critical fact of all. This fact is that technology alone cannot save us. Laws for the sake of laws will never alter the behavior of those who do not consider the long-term consequences of their actions.
If we are truly to preserve and protect individual rights within a free society, and thus to protect society itself, we must stop turning to technological solutions and start turning back to the United States Constitution. The Bill of Rights clearly protects us from government censorship; it also clearly preserves our rights to self-defense, prohibits unlawful and unreasonable searches and seizures of property, and stands as an ideological and legislative roadblock to almost all statist proposals (technologically facilitated or otherwise). Only strict construction of the United States Constitution can preserve and protect us and our society – then, now and in an ever more technologically advanced future.
Today, of all days, be grateful for the wisdom and the forethought of those who erected these barriers to statist intervention. These legal bulwarks have been much assailed for the greater part of the last two centuries, but they remain in place. Be thankful for them.
I know I am.