Deep surveillance – how much privacy could you lose?

The news that seems to have caught much of the media in shock, that our electronic activities were being monitored, comes as no surprise at all to anyone working in IT for the last decade or two. In fact, I can’t see what’s new. I’ve always assumed since the early 90s that everything I write and do on-line or say or text on a phone or watch on digital TV or do on a game console is recorded forever and checked by computers now or will be checked some time in the future for anything bad. If I don’t want anyone to know I am thinking something, I keep it in my head. Am I paranoid? No. If you think I am, then it’s you who is being naive.

I know that if some technically competent spy with lots of time and resources really wants to monitor everything I do day and night and listen to pretty much everything I say, they could, but I am not important enough, bad enough, threatening enough or even interesting enough, and that conveys far more privacy than any amount of technology barriers ever could. I live in a world of finite but just about acceptable risk of privacy invasion. I’d like more privacy, but it’s too much hassle.

Although government, big business and malicious software might want to record everything I do just in case it might be useful one day, I still assume some privacy, even if it is already technically possible to bypass it. For example, I assume that I can still say what I want in my home without the police turning up even if I am not always politically correct. I am well aware that it is possible to use a function built into the networks called no-ring dial-up to activate the microphone on my phones without me knowing, but I assume nobody bothers. They could, but probably don’t. Same with malware on my mobiles.

I also assume that the police don’t use millimetre wave scanning to video me or my wife through the walls and closed curtains. They could, but probably don’t. And there are plenty of sexier targets to point spycams at so I am probably safe there too.

Probably, nobody bothers to activate the cameras on my iphone or Nexus, but I am still a bit cautious where I point them, just in case. There is simply too much malware out there to ever assume my IT is safe. I do only plug a camera and microphone into my office PC when I need to. I am sure watching me type or read is pretty boring, and few people would do it for long, but I have my office blinds drawn and close the living room curtains in the evening for the same reason – I don’t like being watched.

In a busy tube train, it is often impossible to stop people getting close enough to use an NFC scanner to copy details from my debit card and Barclaycard, but they can be copied at any till or in any restaurant just as easily, so there is a small risk but it is both unavoidable and acceptable. Banks discovered long ago that it costs far more to prevent fraud 100% than it does to just limit it and accept some. I adopt a similar policy.

Enough of today. What of tomorrow? This is a futures blog – usually.

Well, as MM Wave systems develop, they could become much more widespread so burglars and voyeurs might start using them to check if there is anything worth stealing or videoing. Maybe some search company making visual street maps might ‘accidentally’ capture a detailed 3d map of the inside of your house when they come round as well or instead of everything they could access via your wireless LAN. Not deliberately of course, but they can’t check every line of code that some junior might have put in by mistake when they didn’t fully understand the brief.

Some of the next generation games machines will have 3D scanners and HD cameras that can apparently even see blood flow in your skin. If these are hacked or left switched on – and social networking video is one of the applications they are aiming to capture, so they’ll be on often – someone could watch you all evening, capture the most intimate body details, film your facial expressions while you are looking at a known image on a particular part of the screen. Monitoring pupil dilation, smiles, anguished expressions etc could provide a lot of evidence for your emotional state, with a detailed record of what you were watching and doing at exactly that moment, with whom. By monitoring blood flow, pulse and possibly monitoring your skin conductivity via the controller, level of excitement, stress or relaxation can easily be inferred. If given to the authorities, this sort of data might be useful to identify paedophiles or murderers, by seeing which men are excited by seeing kids on TV or those who get pleasure from violent games, so obviously we must allow it, mustn’t we? We know that Microsoft’s OS has had the capability for many years to provide a back door for the authorities. Should we assume that the new Xbox is different?

Monitoring skin conductivity is already routine in IT labs ass an input. Thought recognition is possible too and though primitive today, we will see that spread as the technology progresses. So your thoughts can be monitored too. Thoughts added to emotional reactions and knowledge of circumstances would allow a very detailed picture of someone’s attitudes. By using high speed future computers to data mine zillions of hours of full sensory data input on every one of us gathered via all this routine IT exposure, a future government or big business that is prone to bend the rules could deduce everyone’s attitudes to just about everything – the real truth about our attitudes to every friend and family member or TV celebrity or politician or product, our detailed sexual orientation, any fetishes or perversions, our racial attitudes, political allegiances, attitudes to almost every topic ever aired on TV or everyday conversation, how hard we are working, how much stress we are experiencing, many aspects of our medical state. And they could steal your ideas, if you still have any after putting all your effort into self censorship.

It doesn’t even stop there. If you dare to go outside, innumerable cameras and microphones on phones, visors, and high street surveillance will automatically record all this same stuff for everyone. Thought crimes already exist in many countries including the UK. In depth evidence will become available to back up prosecutions of crimes that today would not even be noticed. Computers that can retrospectively date mine evidence collected over decades and link it all together will be able to identify billions of crimes.

Active skin will one day link your nervous system to your IT, allowing you to record and replay sensations. You will never be able to be sure that you are the only one that can access that data either. I could easily hide algorithms in a chip or program that only I know about, that no amount of testing or inspection could ever reveal. If I can, any decent software engineer can too. That’s the main reason I have never trusted my IT – I am quite nice but I would probably be tempted to put in some secret stuff on any IT I designed. Just because I could and could almost certainly get away with it. If someone was making electronics to link to your nervous system, they’d probably be at least tempted to put a back door in too, or be told to by the authorities.

Cameron utters the old line: “if you are innocent, you have nothing to fear”. Only idiots believe that. Do you know anyone who is innocent? Of everything? Who has never ever done or even thought anything even a little bit wrong? Who has never wanted to do anything nasty to a call centre operator? And that’s before you even start to factor in corruption of the police or mistakes or being framed or dumb juries or secret courts. The real problem here is not what Prism does and what the US authorities are giving to our guys. It is what is being and will be collected and stored, forever, that will be available to all future governments of all persuasions. That’s the problem. They don’t delete it. I’ve said often that our governments are often incompetent but not malicious. Most of our leaders are nice guys, even if some are a little corrupt in some cases. But what if it all goes wrong, and we somehow end up with a deeply divided society and the wrong government or a dictatorship gets in. Which of us can be sure we won’t be up against the wall one day?

We have already lost the battle to defend our privacy. Most of it is long gone, and the only bits left are those where the technology hasn’t caught up yet. In the future, not even the deepest, most hidden parts of your mind will be private. Ever.

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5 responses to “Deep surveillance – how much privacy could you lose?

  1. Gary Wilson (@earthgecko)

    Ian, do you really think we will get that far without overt failure happening first?

    • Ha! You anticipated my next blog, on how democracy might collapse because on average, people are just too stupid. But it has been postponed now while I make it less offensive and write another one in between about the CEO change at BT. Seriously though, I think we do tend to muddle through mostly, but the general trend shows evidence that it is going to turn downward. So I don’t know.

  2. Make it clear it is the computers that cannot delete stuff entirely, replace don’t with can’t. If you value privacy avoid computers phones televisions like the plague… Otherwise what?

  3. Gary Wilson (@earthgecko)

    It concerns me greatly that our societies are not planning for failure, every civilisation crashes. There are enough vectors for that in our current paradigm, yet as you say, we muddle along in the now. Assuming that all our electrical and IP based “just-in-time” social infrastructure systems will never overtly fail.

    Are we doing a disservice to humanity by not planning for that eventuality? Black swans and white elephants.

    Hell we are not even talking about it really.

  4. Pingback: 21st Century Social Problems, updated | The more accurate guide to the future

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