More than 70 years ago, in the first wiretapping case decided by the US Supreme Court, Justice Louis Brandeis predicted that the "progress of science in furnishing the government with means of espionage is not likely to stop with wiretapping".
If only he knew how right he was. Today, we have as much to fear from the "Little Brothers" of the private sector as from the "Big Brother" of government. The widespread use of biometrics and the creation of biometric databases threatens to rob us of the precious right to go about our daily lives without being observed and identified.
Fingerprints, for instance, are increasingly demanded of public and private employees. Millions of DNA samples - the ultimate biometric - are already sitting in databases created by the military and other law enforcement agencies. Banks are experimenting with iris scans to identify automated teller machine customers, a practice that can work only if a large database is accessible across the banking system.
Does anyone really believe that government and industry won't seek broad access to this mother lode of information? Recently, officials in two US states proposed selling their databases of digitised drivers licence photos to a private company called Image Data. The company, in turn, would make available those images - which the government insists citizens provide as a condition for driving - to merchants seeking to verify customer identity. It was later discovered Image Data had received funds for the plan from the US Secret Service. The resulting public outrage led to Congress halting the sale. However, it came very close to the creation of a fully searchable nationwide photographic database.
Before it's too late, we need to ask ourselves what sort of society we want to live in. Do we want to endure the indignity of being fingerprinted like criminal suspects? Do we want to live in a surveillance society, where our ordinary and innocent movements are captured by hidden cameras and our identities determined from a photographic database? Do we want to be instantly identified from the DNA we leave behind in a hair follicle or a skin cell?
Citizens must demand laws limiting the collection of biometric information to circumstances where there is a compelling need.
Just as important, these laws must ensure that biometric information cannot be collected without our consent, and can't be used for a secondary purpose without further consent. The American Civil Liberties Union has launched the "Take Back Your Data" campaign to fight for privacy rights. More information about the campaign can be found at www.aclu.org/-privacy/.