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The top 10 science/tech threats of 2007

As we greet the new year, it's worth taking the time for a read of a compilation, by Slate's William Saletan, of the top scientific and technological threats of 2007. Here are a few excerpts:

It's been another big year for scientific and technological encroachments on individual privacy. For good or ill, governments and businesses are finding new ways to enter what used to be considered personal space. Here are this year's top 10 highlights.

1. Surveillance cameras. They're everywhere. Britain has more than 4 million; France has more than 300,000 and is aiming for 1 million; China is building a network of 200,000. New York City wants a few hundred more to enforce traffic fees. Responding to civil libertarian complaints, New York's mayor points out that the city's cameras are nothing compared with the thousands of private security cameras already infesting Manhattan. Meanwhile, the technology is becoming more sophisticated. China's cameras "will soon be guided by software … to recognize automatically the faces of police suspects and detect unusual activity." France plans to do some of its surveillance through aerial drones. Britain is installing loudspeakers in its cameras so operators can scold you for littering, fighting, or vandalism. ....

5. Pedestrian cell-phone use. Many states and cities have restricted phone use while driving. This year, a New York legislator took the next step: proposing to ban use of cell phones, iPods, and BlackBerrys while crossing the street. The bill declared that: 1) it would be a crime to "enter and cross a crosswalk while engaging in the use of an electronic device" and 2) "a user of an electronic device who holds such device to, or in the immediate proximity of his or her ear, is presumed to be engaging in the use of said device." The proposed fine was $100. Proponents argue that such legislation will protect drivers as well as pedestrians, and that "it is impossible to be fully aware of one's own surroundings when occupied in using an electronic device." Critics, in turn, ask why, in that case, it should be legal to engage in other distractions, such as walking while reading a newspaper, or operating your car stereo (or, dare we say, your police radio) while driving. ....

7. Phone-surveillance ads. If you thought terrorist-hunters were the people most interested in your phone conversations, think again. A company has begun tailoring ads to monitored phone calls. The offer: Advertisers subsidize your (Internet-based) calls by paying for ads on your computer screen during the conversation. The catch: The ads you get are determined by voice-recognition software that monitors your conversation and shows you products related to it. The company argues that 1) the software ignores naughty words, 2) it doesn't keep records of what you said, and 3) it's no different from Google's practice of scanning your e-mail box and tailoring ads to the topics it finds there. Civil libertarians worry that tech-industry intrusions have become so common that we've lost our expectation of privacy. Businesses agree—and cite that as a reason to plow ahead.

8. Human chip implants. Radio-frequency identification chips were initially implanted in consumer goods and animals for commercial tracking. Now they're coming to humans. The FDA has approved a chip for people to encode your medical history so doctors can call it up if you can't speak. A company has required some of its workers to accept chip implants. Several Mexican officials were chip-implanted for access to restricted premises. In China, the government is requiring chip-implanted identity cards that show your religion and "reproductive history" (to facilitate enforcement of the country's one-child policy). All told, at least 2,000 people have been implanted. Implant proponents argue that if you let people wear the chips externally, on ID cards or badges, they can be transferred, thereby thwarting surveillance. The electronics industry is opposing further regulation of chip implants, on the grounds that "subcutaneous chips are highly useful" in people with Alzheimer's or diabetes. However, at least three states now ban obligatory implantation of chips in people.

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