Privacy Please

Growing up in the ’90s and coming of age in the 2000’s, I was bombarded by old fogeys complaining about the lack of privacy in this digital age, with its Facepokes and interweb retailers asking us for credit card numbers. I — and other young people — typically dismissed this as an older generation that didn’t understand the awesome transformative power of the Internet and the fact that, with Amazon, not only can I avoid all human contact by buying my groceries online, I can set up recurring deliveries so I can avoid all online contact, too.


Now the real question is, what do I do with all this milk?

Of course, the old fogeys had some valid points, but for the most part our generation has accepted that to some degree, we are giving up some small amount of our digital privacy in order to reap the huge rewards of the Internet.  However, over the past ten years or so, the amount of privacy we’re giving away has shot up at an alarming rate (whether or not we realized it at the time).

Ten years ago, (Feb ’04), Mark Zuckerberg launched a social networking website called thefacebook.  While other social networking sites had existed before it, by 2008 Facebook had overtaken its most popular rival and boasted 100 million users.  While morons continue to post racist diatribes and pictures of illegal activity, the savvy (read: non-moronic) user accepts that the information they post is largely public and can be used against them by, e.g,. employers, law enforcement, and the public at large.  That’s a pretty small price to pay for being able to Like your friend in Santa Fe’s recent relationship status change from “married” to “single.”


Followed by several Status Updates™ about chocolate ice cream

Around the same time Facebook achieved ubiquity, Apple changed the world by introducing a mobile device that was — reliably and quickly — connected to the Internet.  Again, other smartphones had existed before, but this one was lighting fast; it could be connected to WiFi, and even its cellular-backed data connectivity was faster than anything on the market.  This ushered in the era of smartphone ubiquity (by 2013, more than 50% of American adults would own a smartphone), but more importantly, it meant that small objects — phones and other handheld devices, cameras, monitoring equipment, house lighting systems, cars, anything — could connect directly to the Internet so long as they had some connective (e.g., cellular) service.  As more and more devices connect to the Internet and we approach the awesome realities of the Internet of Things — we’re at around 16 billion installed devices now, and the number is growing rapidly as wearables and other applications take advantage of these technologies — the privacy we’ve given up has crossed from the digital world into reality.

The same technology that will allow me to video chat with my cat while I’m in Puerto Rico next week also allows the NSA to know that I’m in Puerto Rico.  At least in my experience, the news that our government was spying on us was met with a resounding “meh.”  Just another bit of privacy we’re giving up for the awesome power of being able to correct Siri when you tell her to text your dad that your plane landed and she tries to send a text to Jad that your fame is left-handed.  Of course, there’s other ways that these data can be used against you — if put in the wrong hands (as though the NSA are not the wrong hands, amiright?), data about your smartphone usage or the location of your car might alert burglars that you’re not home, or that you were cheating on your spouse, etc.  But that folds neatly into our history of giving up privacy in order to reap huge rewards — and, without really getting into it, I really do believe the rewards are huge.  But the more connected we get, the more real-world privacy we will lose, in ways that we may not expect.

Last week, my cousin came over to my parents’ house for Thanksgiving dinner.  He brought with him a quadcopter drone.  I don’t want to nerd out too much, but this thing was really cool — gyroscopically stabilized, with a swivel-mounted high-def camera (the videos are incredibly stable), and quintessentially a part of the IoT: connected to GPS (it won’t let you fly it around restricted airspaces like airports, and it has an automatic return-to-home feature), and with real-time wireless feeds of the camera sent straight to your smartphone or mobile device.  After he demo’d its flying capabilities, he brought out his laptop to show us some of the videos he had taken.  They were mostly aerial shots of his neighborhood or his friends’ houses; a few pictures he had taken of groups, that kind of thing.

But one of them was, for lack of a better word, somewhat disturbing.  His office is down the street from a rougher part of town, so he had gone out in the parking lot, flown the drone over a few buildings and a couple of blocks down the street, and come across a street corner.  And pretty much immediately you see a bunch of people looking up at the drone, pointing, and running away.  And here’s my cousin, sitting in my parents’ living room, showing us HD video with the faces of a bunch of guys who undoubtedly thing they’re being watched by the police and have been caught on camera selling drugs.  I don’t want to use the words “human rights violation,” but if you assume that humans have the right not to be surveilled by random strangers without some sort of regulated oversight, then I guess I’d use those words.*

This problem — and problems like it — will continue to grow with our connectivity and our ability to process it.  Imagine a future where the Amazon delivery drone has cameras; it uses images to make product recommendations for you based on your perceived tastes and preferences.  As it passes by your window it catches a glimpse of your daughter’s room and all of a sudden your Amazon recommendations are all My Little Pony themed.  Imagine you can stream the feed live so you can watch your package being delivered.  Your neighbors are delivering a birthday present for their eight year old, and they’re recording the video so they can have his reaction.  As the drone flies by your house, they — and their eight year old — watch and record you having sex.  Congratulations on exposing yourself to a minor!

I’m not saying we should stop the connectivity — far from it — I’m just saying that for the next 80 years, I’ll be inside with the blinds closed.

*Rhetorical; I don’t actually think that we have that right and I’m too lazy to look up what sorts of loops the po-lice have to jump through to surveil.  I guess my point is, maybe we should.


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