The gonzo entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley like to think of themselves as antigovernment libertarians; the business nostrums of the precrash era assumed that the Internet would lead inevitably to the end of hierarchy and centralized authority and the flourishing of individual creativity. When the e-business technologies of tracking, classifying, profiling and monitoring were used to identify the preferences of American consumers and to mirror back to each of us a market-segmented version of ourselves, Silicon Valley could argue that it was serving the cause of freedom and individual choice. But when the same software applications are used by the government to track, classify, profile and monitor American citizens, they become not technologies of liberty but technologies of state surveillance and discrimination. They threaten the ability of Americans to define their identity in the future free from government predictions based on their behavior in the past. Far from leading inevitably to the end of centralized authority, the age of the Internet turns out to include powerful economic and political forces that are determined to centralize as much information about individuals as possible.
The technology for integrated databases already exists, waiting to be activated by the flip of a switch. In the wake of Sept. 11, few politicians or judges seem willing to keep the forces of centralization in check. And no one should count on the technologists to police themselves.
I had one last question for Larry Ellison. ''In 20 years, do you think the global database is going to exist, and will it be run by Oracle?'' I asked.
''I do think it will exist, and I think it is going to be an Oracle database,'' he replied. ''And we're going to track everything.''
A version of this article appears in print on April 14, 2002, Section 6, Page 46 of the National edition with the headline: Silicon Valley's Spy Game. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribemore » « less