|Photo Credit: Wiki Commons - Andrea Boldizsar|
As technology progresses, society increasingly is encountering challenges to traditional notions of privacy. Yet, these concerns are merely the front edge of a more serious storm brewing over fundamental concepts of personal control and freedom. Today, we already are experiencing the impact of new consumer technologies in regards to our privacy. When it comes to Internet and networked enabled technologies, there is a rule of quid pro quo in effect where in order to get information or services you must give information. The most notable type of personal information we routinely furnish to untold numbers of parties is our location. Many of our favorite mobile “apps” routinely report our location to third party companies. What is done with this information is really not known. Most claim they will remove personal identifying information from your data and then combined with generic data of others to discover trends and patterns. These trends and patterns are theoretically used to “optimize” your experience. As any savvy consumer knows, this is code speak for personalized targeted marketing. Further, as we all know, you don’t have a choice in whether you want an optimized experience or not. It’s take it or leave it. In fact, when we purchase or license technology there is the inevitable EULA (End User License Agreement) accompanied by a check box or button acknowledging your agreement to the provider’s terms. We all routinely click and agree because there is no other option, and for the average consumer the terms are unintelligible and meaningless in any case. In essence, we rely on the good graces of some attorney at Big Co. and its executives to determine what is reasonable, and generally this means grudgingly complying with consumer laws where applicable and otherwise finding inoffensive ways of telling you the many rights and restrictions Big Co. imposes because it is their stuff and they decide how, why, when and who uses their stuff. The fact is nearly two decades into the consumer technology revolution the average person is already trained to roll-over for a cookie.
So, what stops a financing company from requiring that you agree that your self-driving car turn itself in if you’re late on a payment? Nothing. In fact, the training is already underway thanks to auto insurance companies under slickly marketed “safe driver” discount programs. Drivers can install a device that monitors and reports your driving habits and provided the rules of safe driving are obeyed, your insurance premium is discounted. One might say, so what; it’s voluntary. But, the question is for how long. Will there be a day when you can’t manually operate a car in the name of safety? Will there be a day when you can’t hop in a car for a drive without somebody somewhere knowing where you are and where you are going?
This is the insidious nature of technology, especially once the new phase of technology known as the internet of everything kicks into overdrive. The internet is nothing but a vast data communication network. Interconnecting everything may bring untold innovations and benefits that improve our day to day lives, but the internet of everything comes at a price – to get, you must give. The new technology economy operates not only on money, but on information currency. With information comes power, especially when personal information is made an essential aspect of the delivery of the service or functioning of the device. As devices connect and depend on cloud based intelligence to make decisions, we will begin to see our everyday habits and preferences being altered in subtle ways to better align with the desires and interests of others – those in control of the technology. This will occur first by interactive messaging, then by incentive based preferences, then by autonomous command. We have seen hints of this type of manipulation when Facebook launched an undisclosed psychological experiment on its users by increasing negative responses in newsfeeds to gauge how emotional states can be spread. After a backlash, the experiment was terminated with a corporate mea culpa but with the caveat that users agreed to the experiments in terms of service. Essentially, the logic was O.K. you caught us, but we didn’t do anything wrong because you agreed to it. Riot Games, a massive online mobile gaming company, gives us a farther glimpse in to the future. It recently announced that its platform is being used to experiment with online user behavior modification, and is touting its gaming community as the world’s largest psychology lab. Riot claims its motivation is to encourage good behavior, and uses various “punishments” to coerce desired behavior. While Riot’s motivation might be well meaning, the road to abuse and manipulation is being laid with the same reckless abandon as illegal loggers are cutting through the Amazonian forests.
Again, one might say the concern is overblown because we’re talking about games and social media sites. But let’s take something that we all need, use and has a direct impact our lives – electricity. Once all appliances are web connected, energy consumption can be granularly monitored. Once consumption is monitored, alerts and recommendations to optimize your usage will follow, and in fact, many energy monitoring applications are doing this today. This will inevitably evolve into energy usage allocations and tiered pricing to de-incentivize excessive use (think Riot’s punishment scheme), and then to automatic control of devices to block usage to control consumption. Some may think this is a fine idea because it advances conservation. But, the problem is one man’s good idea is another’s oppression, and this where the government comes in.
As more information about where we are, what we do and how we do it is collected, stored, and dissected by vast numbers of private businesses, these business become voluntary and involuntary privatized arms of the government. In the “old” days, the telephone company was the first stop in any investigation. With a subpoena in hand, law enforcement could learn who you talked to and when, and if necessary get a warrant to tap into your conversations. Today, with “big data” massive amounts of historical information are being captured and stored about where you’ve been, with whom you have communicated, what you’ve communicated, what you have purchased, what you’ve read, what you’ve searched, who your family and friends are, and much more. But “big data” is still in its infancy, and big data is going to get a whole lot bigger still. Soon there will big data consortiums and exchanges where inconceivably vast pools of data are logically aggregated and traded. Your data footprint will ultimately turn into the equivalent of your life’s data DNA.
As more regulations and laws are passed that control businesses, the more intertwined and reliant businesses become on the good graces of government. These regulations can be fashioned to require business to keep information about you, and this in turn becomes a powerful investigative tool. The problem is private big data become easily identified and accessible targets for investigation, and generally companies are loath to resist subpoenas and warrants. It costs too much and they lose because the legal standard of probable cause justifying a request is ludicrously low in practice. To give you a sense of the laxity, the FISA court approved over 20,000 requests for warrants between 1978 and 2013, and reject a grand total of 11 requests in the 35 year period. Again, some might say if you are doing no wrong there is nothing to worry about. True, perhaps.
But what happens when government regulation indirectly imposes restraints on day to day freedoms and choices? Take for example CAFÉ standards. New CAFE standards coming into effect are causing automakers to phase out large vehicles from their portfolios. If you understand physics, there is every reason to buy a bigger vehicle and if you wish to pay the extra fuel charges it would seem like a legitimate and reasonable choice. But, the fact is many are being indirectly forced to buy smaller fuel efficient cars, the physics of safety be damned. So, is it not difficult to imagine that as corporations acquire more power through connective technology, the devil’s bargain will be struck. Messy overt methods of control through law making and regulation will be deftly supplanted by sophisticated indirect regulatory policies of control enforced by technology companies.
So, let’s take the seemingly outlandish example with which we started. Your car is driving down the road. A burglary is reported and a description matching your car is reported with a partial license plate reading of 3 digits. Using license plate reading technology, your car is spotted and three digits match. Your license number is checked against your car make and color. It is a close possible match. Using the car registration title database, your finance company is retrieved and connected. Under your financing, you agreed to have your car monitored and controlled to comply with all applicable laws. A request to detain on reasonable cause issues from law enforcement and is sent to the finance company. The finance company is connected to the manufacturer’s automatic monitoring system. A command is sent to your vehicle to proceed and stop at the closest police vehicle rendezvous point. Blue and red light strobes suddenly appear on your next-gen multimedia entrainment system and an audible message is played pleasantly announcing you have been requested to be pulled over, remain with your vehicle and wait instructions from police who will meet you in approximately three minutes. This is followed by “please refrain from making any unusual movements. Please keep both hands on the dashboard in a visible position as the officer approaches. Carefully follow instructions for your own safety and for the safety of the officer. Please be advised that in-vehicle video and audio is being recorded and may be used against you in a court of law.”
Could there be a day when your car arrests you? Why not? It will seem like a good idea to somebody.