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Private lives

Remember those spy movies where the lead character is forced to reinvent his life and assume a disguise - grow a moustache, take a new name, wear glasses?

Well, the chance to start again, for whatever reason, will shortly be history, suggests Amitai Etzioni, author of "The Limits of Privacy" (Basic Books). Biometrics - the electronic ability to recognize you by your eye, hand, or voice - "will completely blow away your anonymity," says the renowned ethicist. The system is foolproof, unmistakable. No one can pose as you. But more than this, biometrics makes you a public person in the sense that you are completely identifiable, Dr. Etzioni says. "You might as well carry a sign with your name emblazoned on you - a kind of prisoner number."

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As Orwellian as this may sound, the technology is here. Wells Fargo bank already identifies its ATM customers by reading their irises. The FBI scans hands.

But the twist to this Big Brother story, says Etzioni, is that the observer may not be whom you think. The government, the traditional suspect when privacy is breached, has long been outpaced by business in gathering more and more data on you, usually without your knowledge. Microsoft's admission this week that it embedded unique identifying numbers in its programs that can track every file you create across vast networks of computers is only the latest in the siege on privacy.

The legal system is way behind the curve and can, indeed must, set limits. And although Etzioni argues that the common good, in some cases, demands public disclosure, he adds soberingly, "There's very little innocent information."

*Susan Llewelyn Leach is the assistant Ideas editor.

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