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8.24: Personal Databanks and Personal Autonomy

The important consideration is not whether each of us discloses ourself or manages our impressions but whether it is possible for us to choose to do whichever whenever we wish. That is, the issue is not privacy, since that is a personal choice, but autonomy, the extent to which personal choice is possible. Thus, the real threat of personal databanks is not invasion of privacy but erosion of autonomy.

In a massive study of the various variables which may affect performance in school, the only variable which correlated was "destiny control" - the extent to which children felt they had control over their lives.12 The locus of control has become a significant independent variable in psychological research. People with an internal locus of control are more successful - in school and out - than people with an external locus of control.13

This perceived locus of control is, of course, an aspect of the phenomenal world of the person. That is, it is an aspect of the world-as-the-person-sees-it rather than of the world-as-it-is. This subjective map of the objective world is more important than the objective world in determining the behavior of the person, since the person behaves not according to the world-as-it-is but according to the world-as-it-is-seen. A tree will have no effect on behavior unless the person perceives it, whereas a mugger that the person imagines to be lurking behind the tree will have an effect on behavior. The unperceived tree is part of the objective world but not of the subjective map, whereas the imagined mugger is a part of the subjective map but not of the objective world.

The central element within the subjective world is the self-concept - that is the person as that person sees him/herself. The most important aspect of autonomy is control of one's self-concept. We tend to think that this self-concept is discovered. This assumes that there is some "true" self that one gradually discovers. The evidence however is that it is an invention. Each of us invents our self. We vary in the degree to which this invention is an authentic expression of our growing from the inside out or a social fabrication based on our conditioning from the outside in. Those with an internal locus of control tend to the former and those with an external locus of control tend to the latter.

In his novel The Tomorrow File, Laurence Sanders imagines in our future a National Databank containing vast sources of information about each of us.14 Whereas public officials have unlimited access to this databank, citizens have only limited access and, when they exceed this limit, are confronted with the chilling phrase "you have no need to know" Such a National Databank - a bureaucrat's dream and a humanist's nightmare - is not just science fiction? Here are some signs of the coming times.

Again and again, a databank is found to have more information than is justified by its ostensible function. For example, a personnel databank will contain information about an employee's punctuality, accident proneness, grooming, and so on. There is a public protest. Officials argue for the relevance of such information but bow to public pressure. Those little victories seem, however, like waves retreating as the tide moves inevitably forward. The debate has shifted over the years as personnel records get more and more personal. The official arguments are more and more convincing since, indeed, everything is related to everything else and, thus, importance of punctuality, accident proneness, grooming in selecting and evaluating employees leads to considerations of life styles, drinking habits and sexual preferences.

A single series of numbers which uniquely identifies each citizen is a useful device in the construction of such a national databank. Swedish citizens already have such a Person Number.15 451115-9305, 450425-4931, 461216-0038, and 500405-2444 may be more familiar to you as the rock group, ABBA.

There is some pressure in Canada to use the Social Insurance Number (SIN) as such a Person Number. Once again, the argument is convincing It helps government provide social services more efficiently.16 SIN was introduced in 1964 for use only by the administrators of the Unemployment Insurance Commission and the Canada Pension Plan. Since then it has insiduously crept into many other areas. A space for it appeared in the 1965 Federal Income Tax form, it is used as an identifying code for members of Canada's armed forces, it is used for the same purpose in many universities, it is requested often when renting an apartment or cashing a check, and it has even been required by children signing up for the Peewee Hockey League.

This pressure continues despite evidence collected by Perrin Beatty, when he was the Conversative communications critic, that it is not a good identifier but, rather, a valuable tool for fraud, since people tend to believe that there is only one per person. The Macdonald Commission on RCMP wrongdoing has been told that 50 percent of all cases of false pretences made use of SIN cards.

The storage capacity of computers is making the compilation of huge bodies of data technically feasible. The Personal Chip which not only identifies us perfectly but also locates us is already here.17 We are familiar with being uniquely identified by our fingerprints but, unless we stray, need not get on to that file We are already familiar with personal locators when we realize that anyone could follow our activities through the trail of credit card bills we leave in our wake but we can choose not to use such credit cards.18 However, we are not yet sensitized to a system which does this so efficiently, and with the pressure to adopt such a system in a pragmatic society, which tends to assume that what can be done should be done. Invention is the mother of necessity.

I don't know you. (Perhaps, I do - but, for the sake of this argument, let's assume I don't.) When I meet you, as indeed I hope to do, you can present yourself to me as you wish. An important manifestation of your current self-concept and an important determinant of your future self-concept is this freedom to represent your self as you wish. The invention of your own self-concept is, in turn, as argued above, a central aspect of your personal autonomy. However, if I can find out a great deal about you from personal databanks before meeting you, you lose some control over your presentation of yourself. This is true even if you only think I can find out about you, since, as argued again above, your behavior is determined by the world as you see it.

Let us look at this argument that personal databanks may erode personal autonomy a little more closely. Just as the National Databank is an extrapolation of certain current trends, so this argument will extrapolate from certain current situations, which now apply to some to us, to all of us.



12   Coleman, J. S. Equality of Educational Opportunity. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, Office of Education, 1966. Actually "social class" also correlated. However, this is probably because "social class" is also correlated with "destiny control". Lower-class children tend to perceive themselves as having less control over their lives (partly, at least, because this is true - they do indeed have less control over their lives).

13   Lefcourt, H. M. "Recent Development in the Study of Locus of Control". In B.A. Maher (Editor), Progress in Experimental Personality Research. Volume 6. New York: Academic Press, 1972.

14   Sanders, L. The Tomorrow File. New York: Berkley, 1975. Science fact writers tend to put down science fiction writers. However, some science fiction writers have had a better record in predicting the future than most academic futurists. They do serve to provide us with various lucid visions of desirable and undesirable futures.

15   Mosey, Chris. "What ever happened to what's his number? Globe and Mail,. 23 October 1981, Page 7.

16   Such a scenario is a bureaucrat's dream and a humanist's nightmare. Is the following conversation very far in the future?

Bureaucrat: Rather than wait until a person enters the work force to issue a Social Insurance Number, it would be more efficient to issue them at birth. Social services are provided to citizens from birth to death or, rather from womb to tomb. They are not just fringe benefits when one has a job. Rather, then, than wait until a person enters the work force to issue a Social Insurance Number, we should issue them at birth.

Humanist: This suggests an entirely new concept of "original sin". Perhaps you could tatto the number on the child's arm?

Bureaucrat: Well, that might upset some parents but --- come to think of it, this would be useful to identify citizens - in emergencies, of course.

Humanist: What is the function of those numbers anyway?

Bureaucrat: To facilitate the administration of the various social services provided by the government.

Humanist: When the number were originally issued, was it intended that they be issued to all citizens, as you are suggesting now?

Bureaucrat: No, only to those eligible for social services.

Humanist: Then why was a nine-digit number used - enough for 999,999,999 that is a thousand million people - in a country with a population of fifty million?

17   Evans, C. The Mighty Micro. London: victor Gollancz, 1979.

18   In a recent night out on the town, I noticed that my signature got progressively more and more messy, as the pub "scrawl" proceeded. It occurred to me then that someone interested in reconstructing my life would know not only where I had dined and wined on 27-07-08 but could retrace my zig-zag path through downtown Montreal. The fact that this thought would even occur to a respectable member of the establishment like myself suggests how far paranoia has gone. I do not yet look around furtively before discarding the triangular corner on my Day-timer page every day. However, come to think of it, ---