Pervasive sensors and IP connections, coupled with the "infinite" storage and computing power in the Cloud, threaten our privacy. We need to defend ourselves and get control of our personal data amassed by private companies and government agencies.
Optimists and pessimists may inhabit opposing camps, but they do have one thing in common: Their inclinations lead to behaviors that verify their prophecies. I've chosen my side: I'm an optimist and have been rewarded accordingly. As a reminder of my attitude, to make sure that the occasional frustrations don't derail my determination, I keep a little figurine from the Provençal Crèche (Nativity Scene) on my desk. He's called Lou Ravi, the Enraptured One:
The traditional characterization is that of a gent who wanders the world, innocently marveling at the simplest of miracles. (At times, I wonder if he isn't just a polite version of the village idiot.)
Recently, a seemingly trivial incident cast a shadow over my life-long optimism, an event that awakened dark thoughts about technology's impact on our privacy.
As I'm driving on the A10 not-so-freeway towards the Loire châteaux, I see my license plate displayed on a sign that tells me that I'm exceeding the speed limit (130kph, about 80mph). This is novel... where we used to have an anonymous flashing nag, now we're individually fingered. On the one hand, it's certainly more helpful than a broad, impersonal warning; on the other, it's now personal.
Stirred from my enraptured stupor, I start counting other ways in which we're targeted.
Staying within the realm of license plates, we have an official, Wikipedia-sanctioned acronym: ALPR, the Automatic License Plate Reader, a device that's used (or mis-used) by municipalities to scan every vehicle that enters the city's limits. An ALPR system is already operational in ritzy Tiburon just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, and it's being considered in ritzier Piedmont, an island of wealth surrounded by Oakland. The NYPD has used mobile license plate readers to build a "database of 16 million license plates, along with locations where the car was spotted". (A Google search for Automatic License Plate Reader yields more than 1M hits.)
We also have various flavors of "event data recorders" in our cars. Similar to a plane's black box, an EDR can regurgitate the sequence of events that preceded a crash. According to the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration), 96% of all 2013 vehicles carry such a device and there is a proposal to make them mandatory in 2015 models.
Insurance companies see the EDR as an opportunity to better evaluate risk so they can offer lower premiums to good drivers. Privacy advocates are concerned that the data could be used for less benevolent purposes:
Though the information is being collected with the best of intentions - safer cars or to provide drivers with more services and conveniences - there is always the danger it can end up in lawsuits, or in the hands of the government or with marketers looking to drum up business from passing motorists.
Again, if you Google "car black box recorder", you get about 6M hits and a wide range of third-party devices. Some come with a dashboard camera such as we see in American patrol cars (and that have been adopted by a huge number of Russian drivers); others plug into the OBD-II (On-Board Diagnostic) connector that's present on all modern cars. Combined with accelerometers and precision GPS recording, these draw a very accurate picture of everything we do at the wheel, where, when and how.
It's not all sinister: With appropriate software, weekend track drivers can visualize and analyze their braking, acceleration, and effective use of apexes. Still, the overall picture is one of omnipresent surveillance. And I'm certainly not encouraged when I read that "anyone with a handheld scanner and access to the port under your steering column can download a wealth of information about your vehicle."
The regard for privacy that's demonstrated by the public sector -- the government agencies that can have an enormous impact on our lives -- is also less than encouraging. We now realize that the IRS reads our email without requiring any authorization or judicial supervision; the DEA complains about iMessage encryption; we have National Security Letters that confer broad and little-supervised snooping powers to US government agencies.
On the private side, Google, Facebook, and cellular carriers amass and trade on our personal data, again, with little or no practical oversight. Try asking any of these companies what sort of information they have on you, to whom they sell it, and if you can have a peek at it.
The litany goes on: Escalating healthcare expenditures give insurers equally escalating incentives to acquire personal behavior data in order to improve their risk calculation (and reject claims). We're photographed, videoed, and, now, face-recognized everywhere. Try counting the cameras that see you on the street, in stores, elevators, offices.
When we worry about such practices, we get the sort of rote retort infelicitously typified by Eric Schmidt: "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place."
Sure, if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. All you need to do is lead a pristine life. Drive carefully; wait for the green light before you cross the street; eat a balanced diet; don't take, view, or exchange the wrong pictures; don't consort with undesirable people; don't say or write bad words; don't inhale the wrong smoke…
This is unrealistic.
If there is nowhere to hide, how can disagreements safely ferment in political life, at work, in relationships? By definition, change disturbs something or annoys someone. And, moving to paranoia, or full awareness, the age-old question arises: Who will guard us from the guardians?
Returning to my now slightly-strained optimism, I hope we'll support the people and organizations, such as the ACLU and many others, who work for our privacy, and that we'll use our votes to unseat those who sell us out to private and state encroachers. We can start with demanding a handle on who has what data on us. Playing on Habeas Corpus, it's already called Habeas Data.
I'm curious to see what Google, Verizon, Orange, Facebook, Amazon and many others know about me. Insights await...