Crossing the line

Crossing the line

There it is again: "Big Brother." This time, the term has crept onto the cover of this week's print issue and into the headline of Rob Mitchell's story, which warns that "Big Brother Really Is Watching." Few other terms elicit as much emotion as this one does.

I conveyed my lack of patience with that fact in a column I wrote last August about the national identity card debate, when I noted that privacy rights activists had predictably evoked the name of the George Orwell classic 1984 in their rallying cry.

"It's difficult to think of a single published work that has caused more senseless hand-wringing or outright paranoia," I wrote. "It seems all you have to do is whisper '1984' or 'Big Brother,' and you're able to whip people into a privacy rights frenzy that sends them over the common-sense edge."

I got an earful from privacy fanatics after that column, as I did after one I wrote about a year and half ago titled "Thinking the Unthinkable." The latter column was especially controversial, because I argued in support of the idea of implanting locator chips in children. Addressing the unthinkable reality that kids go missing, I stood in support of a comment that former Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy once made on the subject. "If I could embed a locator chip in my child right now, I know I would do that," McNealy had said. "Some people call that Big Brother. I call it being a father."

It's clear, then, that I find it unacceptable that "Big Brother" concerns too often trump legitimate efforts to ensure our communal security and our individual protection. But there's something else that needs to be made equally clear: There is, to be sure, a line that must never be crossed.

That line often comes into sharp focus for me, as it did during, of all things, Mike Wallace's interview of Roger Clemens last week on 60 Minutes. The interview with the veteran pitcher focused on allegations that Clemens had taken performance-enhancing drugs -- allegations that he has vehemently denied. Near the end of the interview, Wallace asked Clemens if he would be willing to take a lie-detector test to clear his name.

"Some say they're good, some say they're not," Clemens responded. "I'll do whatever."

I heard myself speaking out loud to the TV screen: "Don't do it," I muttered.

It was a knee-jerk reaction that came amid flashbacks of the times I had been polygraphed during my former career in the U.S. intelligence community. Because of the particular work I was doing, the frequency of the polygraph examinations was even greater than is normally the case in that line of work.

I felt strongly about my service in that capacity, so subjecting myself to the examinations seemed worthwhile. But I dreaded them. It's difficult to describe how intrusive and invasive they feel when you're being asked the most personal of questions while seated in a chair with sensors strapped around your body and attached to your fingertips, and a blood-pressure cuff gripping your arm. I wouldn't wish that unpleasantness on anyone.

So it was with a great deal of discomfort that I read our cover story, in which Mitchell details efforts by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to develop technology that virtually probes the body of, say, an airline passenger to determine whether the individual's thoughts are of deception.

The idea is to create a system that would analyze expressions, gestures and voice patterns, and monitor physiological characteristics such as heart and respiration rates, to basically get inside the person's head. The aim is to determine whether the person is thinking things he shouldn't be thinking.

That is the line that must never be crossed. Every human being needs and deserves the sanctuary and refuge of his own thoughts. Track his activity when necessary. Watch him if you must. But don't mess with what he's thinking. Doing so is as unthinkable as it gets.

Don Tennant is editorial director of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Contact him at, and visit his blog at

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