It’s time to panic about who’s watching us
Privacy” is something we all seem to want. You get mad when your privacy is invaded or in some way mishandled; when Equifax leaks your credit info, when your sexts show up on Reddit, when your psychiatrist’s office gets hacked. Privacy is also something many people are happy to trade away at a moment’s notice, for the slightest reward: your address to win this car, your purchase history for discounts on peanut butter, your life for Facebook. This sounds like a contradiction, but it’s more of a resignation. People claim to want privacy, companies claim to provide it, but neither side is being entirely transparent or honest about the terms of the trade. When something goes wrong, we all get very angry for a minute and then go back to business as usual. Secretly, we might already have made peace with the idea that no one has any privacy online.
It’s time to stop shrugging about privacy.
The next decade will be marked by the rise of technologies that are deeply dependent on the most intimate information about our lives. I’m talking about things like artificial intelligence, wearable sensors, genetic sequencing, drones and tiny cameras everywhere. Then there’s the emerging dynamic of the tech industry, in which a small number of all-powerful giants are becoming central collectors of all digital information. These facts point us toward doom. Soon, a handful of companies will enjoy almost total information awareness over just about everything that every one of us is doing at all times.Let’s play a game I like to call “This Gadget’s Worst Nightmare.” The game goes like this: Pick some newish tech thing. Then spin the story out in your head. Imagine all of the ways the technology might be misused, and ask yourself if our laws and politicians are prepared to handle the dystopian nightmare that emerges. I’m going to warn you: The game gets very scary very quickly. Consider home surveillance cameras. In particular, think about doorbell cams, which appeared on the scene a few years ago and became an instant hit. They’re handy — when people ring your bell, you can see their faces and chat with them. Today, two of the most popular home cameras brands are owned by tech giants: Amazon makes Ring, and Google owns Nest.Privacy-wise, these cameras might initially seem like no big deal — just a new take on the old video intercoms you’d see on jewellery stores in ’80s heist movies. But if you consider their dystopian possibilities, doorbell cameras raise many profound social, moral, economic and even political questions. First, they are motion-triggered cameras that are connected to the cloud. This means that by installing a doorbell cam, you are recording an image of everyone who comes to your door and sending pictures of that person’s face to unknown servers far away. This might sound OK — after all, it’s your house, and you have a right to film people — but remember that your property can also be someone else’s workplace. Delivery people, for instance, might have to come to your door every day. Without obtaining any permission, you’re sending a daily dossier of a UPS driver’s face — and location at a certain time of day — to some internet company.