EYE ON THE PIE: Your eye-dentity is the key to our future

August 7, 2006

By my calculations, the U.S. population will reach 300 million on or about Oct. 15. There is no need to specify the hour and minute.

The population clock at the U.S. Bureau of the Census indicates that we are adding to our numbers at a rate of nearly one person each 10 seconds. Even though our population growth rate has been declining, the absolute growth numbers, and their implications, remain staggering.

For example, if we average two persons per housing unit, we have to build 4,200 houses or apartments every day of the year. That's 1.5 million units in a year's time. That's a huge amount of land, lumber and labor.

As our population grows, the volume of commercial transactions also grows. There is more grocery shopping, more visits to the dentist, more of everything. How do we keep track of all this economic behavior in an efficient manner?

Ah, technology to the rescue. It seems now we can take digital images of the human iris. Each person's iris apparently is unique and thus becomes an eye-dentification mechanism. You have seen such techniques being used in movies for several years. Now police departments are lining up to register every sex offender's iris pattern. Soon law-enforcement officers will be able to check identities of anyone based on his/her iris pattern as recorded in a national database.

This opens a whole new world of commercial opportunities. Today when I go into the grocery, they ask for my chainspecific "discount" card. It has nothing more than a bar code. This way my buying patterns are tracked.

But in the world to come (probably by the time our population is 310 million), I will look into some device, and presto, my identity will be established. Then, not only can the store know what I am buying, but I don't have to present a credit card. Plus I can cash checks without showing my driver's license. All I have to do is look into some iris-scanner.

At the airport, I will go up to a machine, look at it, and my boarding pass will be printed. What am I saying? There will be no need for a boarding pass. All I need do is look into a device at the boarding ramp and my iris will verify my eye-dentity.

I won't need a library card; I'll just look into an iris-scanner. At the ATM, I can get cash even if I did forget my card, because I can let the machine look me in the eye.

With the technology already in place, I can use my computer's camera to make online purchases without cookies, because my eye-dentity is unquestioned. My cell phone can verify who I am and who is calling me. It's the ultimate in caller eye-d.

The glories of this system are endless.

A few reasonable persons will balk at the technology because they fear an inevitable loss of privacy, a denial of anonymity. They think, correctly, that our government is going too far invading our privacy in the name of national security. But this is not government alone. This is not some political maneuvering based on unrelenting paranoia.

No. This new technology is no more pernicious than the widely accepted credit cards or cell phones we have embraced so readily. The issue is who gets access to the data and for what reason. With today's ability to aggregate data through computer linkages, there is no assured privacy unless it is protected by the government.

And that is the rub. Government has become the greatest invader of our privacy. I am less concerned about my bank or grocery than I am about my government accumulating files on my choices. We should not reject superior, efficient technology. We should demand protection from public and private intrusion by strict privacy laws that are enforced vigorously. That is an eye-deology 300 million Americans must support.

Marcus taught economics more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU's Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to mortonjmarcus@yahoo.com.
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