People are concerned with the erosion of their privacy attributed to the Internet, and they are right to be. But what we’ve lost is as nothing compared to the absolute death of privacy we are about to experience as we transition to total reliance on the imminent rise of the Internet of things.
There has been more personal data generated by Internet users over the last two years than in the preceding 20 or so years the Net has been in existence. This personal data has been created by the increased use of social sites, the growing amount of commerce conducted on the Web, Internet giants such as Google and Facebook, and the big telecoms such as Verizon and AT&T hoovering up personal data to sell en masse to industry and big data firms. Or to simply hand over this information to the government in response to a polite, velevet gloved, iron fisted government request.
First, some history. Many believe they have a Constitutional right to privacy. This is just not so. It may be implied in certain select instances. Some Supreme Court decisions interpreted the founding document as granting some privacy rights, such as the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches of persons and homes.
Also, the Fourteenth Amendment’s “liberty guarantee” has been increasingly used by the High Court in several decisions to guarantee certain rights that touch on privacy, such as choices regarding child rearing, procreation, marriage, and termination of medical treatment.
But, no specific right to privacy is written into the Constitution.
In the days before cellular communications were well on their way to being the dominant form of personal electronic communication, the Federal Communications Commission had strict regulatory control governing third party monitoring of telephone conversations. Law enforcement and intelligence agencies were the only branches of government which could legally tap phones, and these only with a court order.
Into the ether
But cellular communications, being radio transmissions, had no such official protection. And the Internet, either carried by cable or through wireless data transmission, is still baffling government regulatory agencies as to whether they have any jurisdiction over Net use or Internet service providers.
So although we got along pretty well with the status quo regarding personal privacy from the government for 200 years or so, the explosive growth of the Internet and the many, many ways we usually unwittingly expose our private affairs to Big Business and the government has raced toward the formation of behemoths of so-called Big Data.
Big Data is a catchall term which includes the collection of personal, business and government information that has brought us to a point beyond the extremely pessimistic dreams of George Orwell.
Exposure of the willing
Millions spill the most intimate details of their lives on Facebook. Their photo posts to Instagram may contain geolocational tags. Hackers have figured out how to use the front facing cameras on laptops to catch their owners’ parading by in various states of undress. Illicit credit card readers are inserted into gas station swipers, recording hundreds of card numbers and passwords, then removed, numbers collected, then sold to brokers, or fences, who resell them to the usual suspects. There are even butt swipers, devices that scan back pockets and purses to read your credit card card info.
Google reads your email and if you mention a brand name for a product or an item you’re thinking of buying, the next search you make Google throws up ads for that product or its competitors.
But we’re just now on the brink of a yawning chasm. Be prepared to take the leap into the new age of No Privacy, courtesy of the coming ubiquity of the Internet of things. Not only will your remaining privacy be rendered a dead letter, but the very definition of privacy is about to change.
The Internet of things is already here in nascent form, from smart cars to smart refrigerators to smart thermostats to home security monitors which know when you’re home and when you’re not, what room you’re in and what you’re doing there.
Death by a thousand cuts
We’re no strangers in the past century to technological advances that change our lives. We’ve also witnessed how the pace of technological change accelerates. And these changes, in their turn, have not only altered our lives, but each has affected them faster and has been more keenly felt by society.
But previous changes have been mostly incremental, a rapidly moving series of small steps that affect one portion of our lives. These include instant phone calls or texts to anyone on the planet, email, cloud storage of personal or business data, the latter facilitating group work on projects or reports.
But still a measure of personal privacy was maintained, depending a lot on how much you were willing to share using that cunning new app or seductive new Internet-connected device.
But the sheer volume of small personal habits and activities added up over time, allowing government and business to put the pieces together to form quite an accurate, and highly detailed, snapshot of you, your spending habits, your circle of friends, your politics etc.
Your life, exposed
But with the Internet of things, these sketches of you will turn into full-fledged portraits. No longer will one device or app do its one trick to change your life, such as storage in the cloud of personal data, or online banking or Internet shopping. The sheer number of embedded sensors in your house and car, the latter long legally protected as bastions of privacy, will reveal every detail of your private life. The Internet of things will affect not just one facet of your life, such as industry, commerce or politics, it will completely rewrite the definition of personal privacy.
These so-called disruptive technologies will merge, at ever faster rates, with the Internet of things to usher in a life completely surveiled.
As Wired magazine put it, the Internet of things is unique among previous technological changes because, “It is the aggregation of a large number of already disruptive technologies, and it combines the disruptive elements of those technologies in new ways, magnifying their effects. Smart tech, the Internet, social identity, big data, cloud, mobility, all these are affected by, and contribute to, the emerging Internet of things. It’s like putting gun powder, dynamite, nitroglycerin, and a bunch of road flares into a box and shaking them up. Something’s going to happen, and happen fast.”
This same article describes the Internet of things as being as pervasive as pottery and agriculture, which for millennia defined human existence. With processors and sensors embedded in our homes, our appliances, our cars, our clothing, our body in the form of wearable tech, even inside our body with implants, we will be streaming a veritable river of data 24 hours of each day.
There will be no signing off, no off switch, no sleep mode. We will be monitored to an unprecedented level; even as we sleep our heart rates, our breathing, our periodic waking, will be under the watchful eyes of big data collectors.
Past is prelude
Such specific data will make us personally identifiable to big data collectors, whose knowledge of past behavior will allow them to predict how we will react to events in the future. Privacy as we know has already well begun to tatter and fray. It is only a figurative moment until we are completely exposed to prying eyes.
How this will all play out remains unknown. Perhaps it will be benign, though the hack attacks against Walmart and Sony Pictures, in which hundreds of thousands of Social Security and credit card numbers were stolen, tends to militate against a rosy view of what is being called the “post-private age.”
And even if huge advances are made in cyber security, encryption and unbreakable firewalls, do we still want to surrender our remaining privacy to government agencies and industries that collect the details of our every move, the former in the service of some nebulous definition of national security, the latter in the name of selling us stuff we’ve casually indicated we might be interested in wanting to buy?
Who do you trust?
Just because our data is allegedly safe in the hands of those we choose to share it with, doesn’t mean we’ll be any more free than if that information is stolen, or even legally gathered and sold to marketers or data collection middlemen. Do you really trust government and business to have our best interests at heart?
But perfect cyber security, in any form, is a pipe dream. Hackers always will find their way into the most closely guarded vaults, as has been proven time and time again. And this personal data, once in the hands of corporations and governments, does not remain “ours” any longer, in the sense that money deposited in a bank remains ours. No, this data is now the property of the big data collector, it is a commodity for sale on the open market, available to anyone with the cash to buy it and who can then do anything they please with it.
Thus is the line blurred beyond recognition that used to separate the merely personal from the intimately private.
Perhaps we would all be better off in a world in which, as Secretary of State Henry Stimson under President Herbert Hoover angrily said when he found out about the extent of spying by our own Cypher Bureau, “Gentlemen do not read other’s mail.”
And if, as George Orwell said, “Freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear,” then it follows that freedom is also the right not to tell people what they want to hear. Yet here we are standing upon the abyss of the post-private age, willingly prepared to cast ourselves over the brink.
But if you’re concerned, and you should be, about going naked into that good night, don’t blink, it’s a tsunami wave racing to shore, already swelling to a crest about to break on the shore and wash away with lightning speed every last shred of personal privacy we have managed to retain in the face of those prying eyes wishing to erase, or redefine, personal privacy.
In other words, it’s inevitable and unstoppable. The best we can do is try to salvage the scraps and work for legislation or regulation that give us back a measure of control over our personal information.
But don’t hold your breath. Once the genie is uncorked, it’s deuced hard to stuff him back into the lamp.
History has shown that as people willingly cede their freedom to a charismatic tyrant, it is difficult or impossible to get it back.
Paul Croke, former newspaper editor and longtime Washington DC area freelance writer, has loved gadgets and consumer electronics since he saw his first Dick Tracy watch. He writes about consumer technology.