Monday, September 19, 2005

Cruising the slippery slope

I'm back, rested and rejuvenated after two weeks cruising in Alaska. But Identity issues were never far from my thoughts. One incident, in particular, is nagging.

When you board a modern cruise ship, your picture is taken and stored electronically. You are also issued a mag-stripe or barcoded plastic card. This card is your cabin key, the charge card you use to purchase goods and services aboard ship and your identity token. When getting off the ship in a port, your card is swiped and (presumably) you are marked as "out". On return, your card is swiped again, and you are marked "in." But that return swipe also brings up your picture on the security guard's console so he can verify that it really is you. (in the "old days" you had to show a picture ID along with your token card). That isn't the problem.

One evening my wife and I made a reservation to eat in the ship's specialty restaurant. As we entered the restaurant, the maitre d' came forward with his arm outstretched and said "Welcome, Mr. & Mrs. Kearns." Now, there were others with reservations at the same time as us. There were others entering the restaurant at the same time also. I'd never seen this maitre d' before. The only possible way he could have recognized us was by viewing the security pictures.

The incident itself didn't trouble me, but the thought that a security picture might be used for social and/or marketing (to give me a "good feeling" about the restaurant treating me as an individual) purposes without my explicit permission is troubling. It's something we need to guard against lest we find ourselves on the slippery slope to Big Brother tracking of all of our activities. The price of liberty really is eternal vigilance.

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