Privacy in the Age of Persistence
Note: This isn’t the first time I have written about this topic, and it surely won’t be the last. I think I did a particularly good job summarizing the issues this time, which is why I am reprinting it.
Welcome to the future, where everything about you is saved. A future where your actions are recorded, your movements are tracked, and your conversations are no longer ephemeral. A future brought to you not by some 1984-like dystopia, but by the natural tendencies of computers to produce data.
Data is the pollution of the information age. It’s a natural byproduct of every computer-mediated interaction. It stays around forever, unless it’s disposed of. It is valuable when reused, but it must be done carefully. Otherwise, its after effects are toxic.
And just as 100 years ago people ignored pollution in our rush to build the Industrial Age, today we’re ignoring data in our rush to build the Information Age.
Increasingly, you leave a trail of digital footprints throughout your day. Once you walked into a bookstore and bought a book with cash. Now you visit Amazon, and all of your browsing and purchases are recorded. You used to buy a train ticket with coins; now your electronic fare card is tied to your bank account. Your store affinity cards give you discounts; merchants use the data on them to reveal detailed purchasing patterns.
Data about you is collected when you make a phone call, send an e-mail message, use a credit card, or visit a website. A national ID card will only exacerbate this.
More computerized systems are watching you. Cameras are ubiquitous in some cities, and eventually face recognition technology will be able to identify individuals. Automatic license plate scanners track vehicles in parking lots and cities. Color printers, digital cameras, and some photocopy machines have embedded identification codes. Aerial surveillance is used by cities to find building permit violators and by marketers to learn about home and garden size.
As RFID chips become more common, they’ll be tracked, too. Already you can be followed by your cell phone, even if you never make a call. This is wholesale surveillance; not “follow that car,” but “follow every car.”
Computers are mediating conversation as well. Face-to-face conversations are ephemeral. Years ago, telephone companies might have known who you called and how long you talked, but not what you said. Today you chat in e-mail, by text message, and on social networking sites. You blog and you Twitter. These conversations – with family, friends, and colleagues – can be recorded and stored.
It used to be too expensive to save this data, but computer memory is now cheaper. Computer processing power is cheaper, too; more data is cross-indexed and correlated, and then used for secondary purposes. What was once ephemeral is now permanent.
Who collects and uses this data depends on local laws. In the US, corporations collect, then buy and sell, much of this information for marketing purposes. In Europe, governments collect more of it than corporations. On both continents, law enforcement wants access to as much of it as possible for both investigation and data mining.
Regardless of country, more organizations are collecting, storing, and sharing more of it.
More is coming. Keyboard logging programs and devices can already record everything you type; recording everything you say on your cell phone is only a few years away.
A “life recorder” you can clip to your lapel that’ll record everything you see and hear isn’t far behind. It’ll be sold as a security device, so that no one can attack you without being recorded. When that happens, will not wearing a life recorder be used as evidence that someone is up to no good, just as prosecutors today use the fact that someone left his cell phone at home as evidence that he didn’t want to be tracked?
You’re living in a unique time in history: the technology is here, but it’s not yet seamless. Identification checks are common, but you still have to show your ID. Soon it’ll happen automatically, either by remotely querying a chip in your wallets or by recognizing your face on camera.
And all those cameras, now visible, will shrink to the point where you won’t even see them. Ephemeral conversation will all but disappear, and you’ll think it normal. Already your children live much more of their lives in public than you do. Your future has no privacy, not because of some police-state governmental tendencies or corporate malfeasance, but because computers naturally produce data.
Cardinal Richelieu famously said: “If one would give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest man, I would find something in them to have him hanged.” When all your words and actions can be saved for later examination, different rules have to apply.
Society works precisely because conversation is ephemeral; because people forget, and because people don’t have to justify every word they utter.
Conversation is not the same thing as correspondence. Words uttered in haste over morning coffee, whether spoken in a coffee shop or thumbed on a BlackBerry, are not official correspondence. A data pattern indicating “terrorist tendencies” is no substitute for a real investigation. Being constantly scrutinized undermines our social norms; furthermore, it’s creepy. Privacy isn’t just about having something to hide; it’s a basic right that has enormous value to democracy, liberty, and our humanity.
We’re not going to stop the march of technology, just as we cannot un-invent the automobile or the coal furnace. We spent the industrial age relying on fossil fuels that polluted our air and transformed our climate. Now we are working to address the consequences. (While still using said fossil fuels, of course.) This time around, maybe we can be a little more proactive.
Just as we look back at the beginning of the previous century and shake our heads at how people could ignore the pollution they caused, future generations will look back at us – living in the early decades of the information age – and judge our solutions to the proliferation of data.
We must, all of us together, start discussing this major societal change and what it means. And we must work out a way to create a future that our grandchildren will be proud of.
This essay originally appeared on the BBC.com website.