The Pew Internet and American Life project released Part II of its Future of the Internet report. Run by Janna Anderson and Lee Rainie, the content aggregated in this report is simply worth its weight in gold. In the study, Pew brought together a number of highly respected experts and asked them to respond to some possible scenarios. While the report as a whole is very useful, I felt that section 4 of the report would be of interest to ClaimID users.
Pew posed the following question:
As sensing, storage and communication technologies get cheaper and better, individuals’ public and private lives will become increasingly ‘transparent’ globally. Everything will be more visible to everyone, with good and bad results. Looking at the big picture â€“ at all of the lives affected on the planet in every way possible â€“ this will make the world a better place by the year 2020. The benefits will outweigh the costs.
The respondents split, with 46% agreeing and 49% disagreeing. Personally, I’m blown away that half of Pew’s expert panel seems to accept the underlying assumption of the question – that privacy won’t really be an option in 2020. Pew, explaining the current status of surveillance issues, states:
Your life is being recorded in various ways today. Your cell phone is a tracking device. Your personal life and financial status are recorded in various databases. Anyone in the world can find out the tax-assessed value of your home with a 10-second internet search. And, with the further development of â€œIP on everything,â€ the concept that people and goods will be tagged and trackable on the network through the use of sensors, things are becoming more complex and more transparent simultaneously.
Billions of radio frequency ID (RFID) tags are already in use due to their growing adoption by retailers (such as Wal-Mart) and government agencies (such as the U.S. Department of Defense). The fairly inexpensive, nearly invisible devices are used as a means to improve efficiency. They can be used to track inventory, equipment and personnel; they may replace bar codes. One estimate finds that corporations making RFID devices will make more than $24 billion a year by 2016.
In a sense, we’re already living in this world. As I type this note, my computer is attached to an internet connection that records my presence; when I present a credit card at the store, I am further recorded – and who knows how many surveillance cameras record my every move. What we lack – what gives us this notion of privacy, is the fact the mesh network that would bring all of this information together doesn’t yet exist (outside of the NSA). How reminiscent of the Facebook feeds fiasco – yes, all my information is out there – but when it is in one place, I am no longer comfortable with it.
In the report, Cory Doctorow and Hal Varian weigh in on a social contract for privacy:
Boing Boing blogger Cory Doctorow, an EFF Fellow, wrote, â€œTransparency and privacy aren’t antithetical. We’re perfectly capable of formulating widely honored social contracts that prohibit pointing telescopes through your neighbours’ windows. We can likewise have social contracts about sniffing your neighbours’ network traffic.â€ And Hal Varian of Google and the UC-Berkeley wrote, â€œPrivacy is a thing of the past. Technologically it is obsolete. However, there will be social norms and legal barriers that will dampen out the worst excesses.â€
Barry Wellman explores the nature of power and privacy:
Barry Wellman, a researcher on virtual communities and workplaces and the director of NetLab at the University of Toronto, responded, â€œThe less one is powerful, the more transparent his or her life. The powerful will remain much less transparent.â€