Most people will read this title and think “Not my kid!” They would never do anything that would earn them the label of ‘criminal.’ Well, I have bad news for you…
By: Simon Anderson
It’s not that your kids will be any worse than you were or than anyone else’s kids are today. But, they will still be criminals. In fact, you probably will be too. Think about everything you did in the last week. There is almost no chance you didn’t break at least one law. What if there were cameras at every traffic intersection? What if your car was reporting everything you did (it already may be). Even a heated discussion about a football game between you and your friends could look like “disorderly conduct” when viewed remotely on a police monitor. Internet laws are moving towards enabling extreme monitoring- what if your teenager posts a video of themselves singing their favorite song on YouTube? That’s copyright infringement! That’s the path we’re headed down right now.
Unfortunately, exponential advancements in technology and societal changes are creating an unyielding convergence of trends that all but guarantees a future with little privacy and a lot to watch out for. These advancements are just hard to perceive because our minds naturally think linearly, not exponentially. The number of things that are illegal to do, say, write, etc., grows with each new legislative session. And new technology makes monitoring your every move cheaper and easier by the day. If everything is recorded, how will law enforcement adapt to the massive wave of new ‘criminals?’ Our antiquated criminal justice system is simply not going to adapt in time. Some court houses are still using DOS-based systems. Literally.
The first publication to advocate the protection of privacy in relation to advancing technology was the article “The Right to Privacy”, written by Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis- in 1890! They were concerned about newspaper articles and photos turning gossip into a trade. One hundred and twenty plus years later and our privacy is being invaded in ways they could have never imagined. Their fears would be placed decidedly on the far “least concern” side of the today’s “Spectrum of Invasion”, and sadly most of us have no idea how far across that spectrum we are preparing to travel. Our current privacy concerns usually amount to being indignant that Facebook keeps track of everything we do to better sell their product (us) to marketers. Or we use Bing instead of Google, because Google now combines everything you do on any of their sites to better sell their product (us) to marketers. In a painfully short amount of time, having the fact that we watched a YouTube video about panda bears or that we like chocolate cake recorded in a database somewhere will be the least of our privacy problems. Neither will the Supreme Court’s recent failure to stop potential employers from demanding your social network passwords as part of the interview, or even Arizona’s House Bill 2549 that just passed both their house and senate, with wording so vague it makes just about anything you put online potentially criminal.
Currently, cameras are being installed throughout the nation that can easily be connected to facial or iris recognition software. This is already happening in New York City. Everyone arrested for any reason gets an iris scan, including people such as the Occupy Wall Street protesters. But really, they don’t even need to arrest you to be able to recognize you in a crowd. How many pictures of you do you think there are being stored online somewhere, or can be obtained from your Facebook page, your LinkedIn profile, your Flickr account, or any number of other places? Systems already exist that can compare the face of someone walking by a camera to a database of 36 million faces in less than one second. Police have been testing a device they can connect to a smart phone and scan crowds as they walk by to alert them of any know fugitives nearby. Predictive policing, used in a growing number of cities, uses big data to determine where and when crimes are likely to occur and preemptively place officers there. It’s not unreasonable to think that you may be traveling one day and take a wrong turn at the wrong time and look suspicious to the officers waiting there, who are fully expecting a crime to occur. To better monitor us, law enforcement and numerous government agencies are lobbying hard to pass legislation that would allow them to use drones to spy domestically. All of their requests are considered highly likely to be passed by our “suggestible” politicians as this would mean a windfall for defense contractors who happen to have a powerful lobby. It has been estimated that there will be 30,000 drones spying on us silently from the skies within the next few years. Of course this begs the question, how long until they’re armed? A criminal who could have a gun may be easily subdued by a drone he can’t even see, but what if they’re wrong?
Ok, so we already know walking around outside we can have no expectation of privacy. What about in our cars and houses? Not so much. Cars are already equipped with GPS-based tracking services such as GM’s OnStar that can be used to disable your vehicle and lock you inside whenever and wherever you may be. Of course it doesn’t stop there. Cars will be able to fully recall your entire driving history- how fast you accelerate, where you go, if you speed; you can already allow some of this information to be accessed by your insurance company to receive a discount on your premium. Many new cars have microphones and voice-recognition installed for hands-free calling and controlling the radio. Even if your car doesn’t have this feature, it may have microphones to pick up and counteract road noise by playing offsetting frequencies through the speakers. It doesn’t seem that unreasonable or unlikely that someday these mics could be used for picking up other sounds.
What about our houses? This is where things start to get really creepy. The NSA, furiously attempting to justify their bloated budget, is creating a giant monitoring center in Utah and they’re not even trying to hide it – check out the cover of this month’s Wired magazine. In this state-of-the-art center they are creating probably the world’s most advanced surveillance system. Upon its completion, it will have the capacity to store one yottabyte of data. To put that in perspective, all of humanity created five exabytes of data as of 2003 – or 1/200th of a yottabayte! Although most of your emails, financial records and other personal information can’t currently be decrypted due to Advanced Encryption Standard cipher algorithms, the NSA is storing it anyway because they are confident in their ability to decrypt it in the future (near future). Since they have everything stored, they can easily go back and explore this treasure trove of data. And, with so much information being moved to the cloud, retrieving it in the future will be easier than ever. Additionally, the new computers can quickly compile samples of your writing and determine with a high level of accuracy what else you’ve written, even if posted anonymously. If it has ever been online, they can almost certainly find it and tag you as the author.
A term we are going to start hearing often- “the internet of things”, refers to everyday appliances being connected to the internet. Everything from your washing machine to your toaster will have its own IP address. We already have bathroom scales that tweet your weight every time you step on them. And even today, most higher-end smart tv’s are coming equipped with camera’s, motion sensors, facial recognition and microphones. The new Microsoft Kinect is rumored to even be able to read lips! These features are great for changing the channel with a swipe of your hand, but can quickly be turned into an excellent spying device. Even smart meters, darlings of the green energy movement, have been found to have the ability to pick the low-level radiation patterns emitted from your television and match it up to a database to discover what you’re watching.
Your own body won’t be private either. Personal monitoring devices, such as the FitBit Ultra or the Jawbone Up are ushering in a new era of personal data collection. These devices certainly have their positive uses, but this vast amount of personal data may not be so personal much longer. Insurance companies may soon ask for access to it in exchange for discounts based on the number of steps you take daily, or time spent exercising, or any number of other metrics newer devices will be able to measure. It won’t be long, however, before this information could be demanded just to maintain coverage. More concerning from an insurance perspective is genomics. It no longer takes a decade and the billion plus dollars to have your genome sequenced that the first one did. It’s now about $1000 and takes an afternoon. As major medical tests go, this is a bargain, and it’s getting cheaper by the day. Genome sequencing can spot genetic risk factors for certain conditions and diseases, and as the sample size gets exponentially larger we will move from correlation to causation (and hopefully correction) for a large number of ailments. But until then, if your genome shows an 80% likelihood of developing colon cancer, I would bet there will be 100% chance you’ll be uninsurable.
Unfortunately, what I’ve just told you is not science fiction – there’s been a whole acronym soup of new bills introduced since the Patriot Act restricting our privacy or freedom- HR 347, HR 658, NDAA, CISPA, SOPA, PIPA, ACTA – and most of them treat the US Constitution as though it’s not worth the parchment it was written on.
Now, I’m no conspiracy theorist- I believe that long ago the media decided that trying to scare us is the best way to sell advertising, creating the basis for many of today’s fears. But in a world with no privacy, and with all of our devices and technology constantly telling on us, unless you live completely off the grid in a solar-powered mud hut and use beads and pottery as currency, it’s going to be really hard to stay out of trouble. It’s been said “In the future, everyone will get 15 minutes of privacy.” That’s good, because we’re going to need it!
This, of course, is just a possibility. We shouldn’t necessarily be overly pessimistic about the future – in fact, there’s plenty of evidence that emerging technology will allow us to fix much of what’s wrong in the world in the next decade or two. Look at the future of energy, for example. The price of solar power dropped 50% just last year, and there’s 5,000 times more energy from the sun hitting Earth each day than we currently use from all sources. We can now fully sequence a plant genome in three hours for just a hundred dollars, and genetically engineered crops have some major advantages. Advancements in water purification, such as Segway inventor Dean Kamen’s “Slingshot” device, are finally beginning to provide hope for those who struggle without access to clean water. The world’s growing number of billionaires now seem far more committed to solving global problems as their legacy than having their name on a few extravagant buildings. But, most importantly, over the next few years billions of new voices will be added to the collective conversation as they are connected to the internet for the first time. With such a tremendous influx of new ideas and dreams and innovations, we as global citizens have a lot to look forward to. That, even by itself, is transformational.
Just don’t expect to have any privacy…