The Death of Privacy

As a society we value our privacy, it seems innate in our culture.  We love to say, “in the privacy of our own home”.  However it seems with the advent of new technologies, we have created a world of new scenarios. With each great leap forward things get faster, more precise and much smaller.   As this  has happened we have seen our basic privacy, seemingly erode. Just think about when we go shopping or participate in other activities.  Any store we go into has camera’s throughout the store, monitoring our every move.  Art Museum..certainly the eyes of the camera are upon you.  Is it limited to the private sector?  Certainly not.  When these things happen it is not apparent if our government can help us or should we fear what the government has access to. How much of our lives is our own and how much will be public record? We are offered an array of online services designed to help us engage the world, by sharing our personal information to our friends, but in the end we may desire to set boundaries but anyone who wants access to that information will and can find a way to access that info.  The question before us is what is privacy and has it vanished forever?

Starting with our government I have grown up in a generation of distrust if government.  Not by everyone, but certainly a very vocal right-wing element of society.  The influence of George Orwell’s epic book, “1984” is evident or maybe his other book, “Animal Farm”, though I think most people who despise government have not read either. Yet time after time when the country enters crisis we turn to government to hep and aid us during troubled times.  When 9/11 occurred we felt it best to lessen our civil liberties by enabling the government to pass the Patriot Act.  We did not want something like 9/11 to happen again and were powerless to do anything on our own. We reacted without giving proper thought to what we were giving up.  Fear has away of doing these things. In this modern age that has enabled government to collect data on its citizens in new ways and in larger data arrays then ever before.  It raises the question of what is the price of freedom and what are we wiling to sacrifice to maintain it?  The Patriot Act was signed in 2001 by George W Bush.  It remains with is today.

When I worked for AT&T and did some sales calls, one of particular interest was to an insurance company.  They wanted to talk with us about collecting data from automobiles.  Using the AT&T  network to transmit and collect data from automobiles. It is not hard to understand why.  The ability to capture driver behavior and provide real-time insurance rates, saving the good drivers money and costing the bad drivers more.  It is a scenario that makes sense, but our relationship with insurance companies is a double-edged sword as we like them when we need them but we don’t  when they raise our premiums.  The fundamental question I remember coming out of the meeting is whose data is it that sits on the mobile platform of the future?

With the internet we keep delivering new services.  In the last decade we have seen the rise of social media.  Things like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc..All collecting personal user behavior.  Data that these companies will use to create new algorithms to better serve our needs.  How they use this data is a mystery.  Facebook has over a billion users, they have opportunities to take data and market to its user base in new and exciting ways.  We are also now mobile allowing Google to determine our current location.  Thus they can provide us better and more relevant services.  Which I find in general we do.  We have basically signed up so we can be tracked.  Is that data our data? The quick answer is no.  When a crime is investigated that location data becomes valuable to law enforcement.  If wives suspect a husband of cheating they will be able to locate him (I did check the Apple store to see if such an app existed, but could not find one).  Then the question would be; would you be the only who has that data?

Then there is the new and emerging area of drones.  We have all sorts of new scenarios and issues being created.  In one case a woman I used to work with looked outside her window in a high-rise condo in Seattle and lo and behold something was looking back at her.  In this case  it was claimed aerial shots were being taken for real estate surveys.  A similar scenario played out in San Francisco, in that case it was a hobbyist.  On the flip side scenarios are being deployed and envisioned for commercial purposes.  A report out of India had a company using drones for pizza delivery.  Jeff Bezo’s, CEO of Amazon, outlined a future in which drones would handle delivery of Amazon products.  These are all scenarios being driven by the private sector, but once a drone is airborne it is basically in information collection agency, so what other information is it collecting?  It is one thing if the drone just delivers a pizza, to a specific set of coordinates.  However these drones are essentially roving eyes, what other data do they capture as they deliver your goods?

Beyond the private sector there is a great interest in the public sector to use these new mobile video surveillance tools.  Your local police force now has a new tool to use in combating crime.  In some cities this has gone forward, Houston.  In others this caused outrage.  The Seattle Police force purchased one and was asked to return after a public outcry.  However over time I think this will be common place as more and more of the human element is taken out of law enforcement.   For those intending to commit crimes, your chances of success are about to diminish.  The question will be what are we willing to sacrifice for safety? Can we envision a police force of RoboCops?  Will we be able to use this surveillance to anticipates acts of crime?  Could we see a significant reduction in the crime rate in the United States?

A little over a year ago MIT announced they had created drones the size of a dime.  The one thing we know from the past, which falls in line with Moore’s law, is these drones will double in capabilities every 18 months.  They will get smaller.  More sophisticated.  They may not be visible to the human eye.  They can be anywhere and everywhere.  The benefits will be great for certain scenarios.  You can see in a hostage scenario you can let a dozen of these little bugs into the hole where the criminal is hiding and get data on the circumstances in ways that did not exist before and thus make better informed decisions and reducing the risk if fatality to the hostage.  Probably in time those little bugs will be armed.  But why limit to law enforcement, what happens when the other side is allowed to get a hold of these little bugs?  It could be a peeping Tom paradise.

So what is privacy anymore?  We sacrificed a lot when we logged on to the internet.  The internet has become unplugged and gone increasingly mobile. We now have the term Big Data.  Data that Amazon can use to determine and predict individual buying behavior and match the appropriate deal to the customer.  We can watch user internet browsing behavior in real-time, which enables us to capture pedophiles.  I saw a recent news report on TV where it showed a police data center that could pull up a map and track of the number of people potentially looking for child porn online. Based on the number of hotspots on the map, you would have to increase the size of the police force to arrest and prosecute everyone.  This is a benefit of online surveillance, but it shows the level of knowledge available from watching internet traffic. As all this goes on we must admit we opt into it when we sign in to websites, provide personal data, press the OK button without fully reading what is being asked.

The question is what is privacy and is it evaporating right before our eyes?  We are a connected society and that does not mean we are all holding hands.  We opt in for basic consumer satisfaction, instant gratification.  We connect with friends and family.  We can do these things while looking over a serene lake setting or gazing and wondering at snow-capped mountains.  All is good until it is not.  Don’t look to blame the government.  Nor can we place the blame on big corporations.  In what amounts to a blink of an eye we all opted in.  We bought PC’s, mobile phones, joined a social network, provided our location to Google Maps, we wanted instant gratification but we gave away something very basic that we took for granted, our privacy.  We love to say “In the privacy of our own home”, the reality we have let everyone into our home, just by clicking in a button.  Once they are in, they don’t want to leave.

Good Night and Good Luck

Hans Henrik Hoffmann July 29, 2014




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