There has been a great deal of concern over corporate and government data collection activities. While there can be no doubt that we enjoy incredible freedom and data collection activities have not adversely affected our lives (other than for those who have reacted to it with fear and outrage), there are reasons for legitimate concern. Although new technologies need not limit human freedom - after all, technologies can only be understood in their socio-cultural context - people use new technologies to promote their own self-interests. In marketing, this means that corporations will attempt to model and influence the decision making process. In government, it means that data collection will be used to develop mechanisms of organization and control. In fact, the word the statistics comes from the word state, "state"-istics.
Public concern has rightly focused on the erosion of privacy in a technologically mediated world, but without being fully cognizant of the fact that personal control over ones and zeroes, in the digital world, is the basis of all human rights. We must ask, how can we institutionalize a basic right to privacy within the Virtual World? And how do we secure basic human rights, in the long term sense? This, of course, was the central theme in my last book.
We are currently seeing increasingly centralized control of social and economic activities, and students of history tell us to be wary. Putting aside refrigerators which monitor your eating habits (coming soon!) or the possibility of receiving marketing calls from someone that sounds like your mom (thank you Siri for recording our vocal patterns), we might expect to see:
- Ubiquitous tracking and surveillance. Where do you shop, where do you sleep, what caught your attention, do you like blonds or brunettes, who are your friend's friends? In the future, third parties will track your position, listen in on conversations, track your eye movement, measure your physiological indicators, analyze vulnerabilities, develop predictive behavior models. And to some extent, we can already see this today.
- Tailoring of data, content, and contacts to the individual user. It is not a question of whether or not data will be carefully filtered and culled, but which company is going to do it for you. Comcast, Facebook, Google, Amazon, a government agency. The future of the Internet is Match.com. Who do they recommend that you meet? What books should you read? What information is relevant? Whose views are represented?
- Centralized control of all monetary transactions. Credit card are the online currency, tracked and subject to third-party approval.
At the end of the day, we must ask, what kind of world are we building? And is it one that we want to live in? Interaction between two individuals, whether we are talking about chatting online or social networking, may be modeled as interaction between individuals, not as an interaction facilitated, monitored, and scripted by an unwanted third party. And putting the topic of motivation aside, it is not obvious to me that a clear distinction between government and corporate programs can be made - same technology, same data set, etc. Let us not forget that is it standard practice for companies, such as Google, to hack the privacy settings on your cell phone. Or that the tech industry has colluded to circumvent key technologies, such as cookies, which were supposed to protect privacy, turning data collection into a multibillion dollar industry.
We don't need middle men to monitor our activities, to tell us what to buy, or to mediate our interactions. But, this is what cloud and client server models offer. These models are a modern variation of the old mainframe model, in which administrators maintain centralized control, and users are given dumb terminals. In the future, students will ask their teachers why anyone ever thought we could build democracy on top of a model of centralized control. Peer-to-peer encrypted networking is the alternative, contemporary corporate revenue models be damned.
Stepping outside the cozy confines of our Western Democracies and the assumption that people are basically well meaning, we see a world of regional wars, of ruthless dictators, of genocide. In the near future, we should expect to see "Big Data Technologies" being used by brutal regimes, helping to target and eliminate unwanted segments of the population. It is a technology that Hitler, Stalin, and Mao only dreamed of. Big Data may be used not only to help maintain an Orwellian State, it may be used as a weapon. 200,000 people were killed by the atomic bomb. How many people will be killed by Big Data?
It may be argued that: "We should not confuse the efforts of corporations to provide important services, or the efforts of democratic governments to ensure national security, with the actions of madmen." "Technology development will lead to a better world, but with the good will always come the bad." "Dictators would have developed these technologies independently of Silicon Valley." Or a variation on the theme, "Guns don't kill people, people do." While these arguments are not without some merit, we must ask what responsibility do scientists and engineers have for the technologies that they bring into the world? Does the technology we build promote human rights or does it undermine them, particularly in countries without a strong history of the rule of law, checks and balances, and constitutional protections? Will the technology we export be used to kill people? Will design choices, in the design of emerging Internet technologies, lead to the enslavement of millions?
Human rights may be seen as a function of design. And it is the software design community's responsibility to embed inalienable human rights within the architecture of the digital world. Here, again, we see the need for private peer-to-peer interactions. Private peer-to-peer interaction may be seen as a simple expression of our First Amendment Rights, a right to freedom of expression, religion, and association, without fear of discrimination or reprisal.
It is through peer-to-peer technologies and end-to-end encryption that we may protect basic human rights, and begin to build a framework for social and economic interaction, in an increasingly digital world. With the development of private peer-to-peer technologies, it will no longer be necessary to sign away our right to privacy to participate as fully functioning members of society.