“Your papers, please!”
That shouted demand has been the historic introduction to any number of checkpoints in nations where democracy has died or never was. Documents that reveal who you are, where you live, religion, and even whether you have permission to leave your house are all part of the heavy burden required of citizens living in a land where freedom is a fond dream, and government dictates your future.
Today Communist China has gone far beyond that demand for “papers!,” creating a regimented all- knowing world that uses the latest in facial recognition, artificial intelligence, and digital monitoring to ensure political obedience from its population. It is the dystopian novel “1984” on steroids.
The ability to monitor, intrude, and invade our privacy has never been greater and the danger to our democracy looms large due to the application of technology that is advancing far faster than legal precedent.
One may wish to mock conspiracy theorists but the current ability to harvest enormous amounts of personal data is, frankly, beyond our knowledge and comprehension. Every keyboard click has the means to be tracked by artificial intelligence and consolidated for good or for ill.
That would explain the queasy response to New York State’s COVID vaccine passport program designed by IBM, dubbed the “Excelsior Pass.” It uses QR codes on a smartphone to produce proof of vaccinations against COVID-19, thereby allowing, or denying, individual access to public gatherings, air travel, theaters or restaurants.
Eric Piscini, IBM’s global vice president of emerging business networks is project lead. He has told the media, “It’s very important when we reopen communities and economies that there’s a level of trust in organizations such as the state of New York and IBM.”
This from a company who once upon a time provided early computing equipment to the Third Reich that enabled their 1933 census to quickly identify the Jewish population who would subsequently be shipped to the death camps within a decade.
Putting that chilling precedent aside, the Biden Administration has reportedly said these monitoring programs are solely the purview of the States and the private sector. That means we are leaving this brave new world of technology, surveillance, and data harvesting to corporations whose arbitrary actions, for example, have silenced the voice of a former President of the United States and the 75 million people who voted for him, because they do not conform to their ideology.
There is little doubt that vaccines have played a critical role in confronting the very real threat from COVID-19 and those who do not participate in the effort place themselves at risk. However the use of digital surveillance to track who has, and who has not, received their vaccinations is a gateway to a level of tyranny that is the stuff of nightmares. Washington’s reluctance to become involved in setting protocols for digital passports is a reflection of their appreciation of just how toxic this technology is to basic freedoms in a functioning democracy.
However silence creates a vacuum where individual states and corporate entities are now empowered to set the rules. And they do.
Private companies have long been able to refuse employment to whoever they wish (with some notable exceptions such as the Civil Rights Laws) and local government entities such as school districts can set vaccine mandates for admission.
Still, these requirements are a far cry from the all-seeing- all knowing digital passports that add one more crucial piece of digital surveillance for entities that have already proven incapable of protecting personal privacy or respecting fundamental freedoms.
If this deeply disturbing tech trend is allowed to proceed you won’t need to produce your “papers” on demand. The authorities will already know all they need to know about you.
Ronald J. Rosenberg, founder of the New York law firm Rosenberg Calica & Birney LLP, has successfully litigated numerous cases in both state and federal court and represents a diverse group of corporations, and high net-worth individuals.
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