Tag Archives: privacy

Future Surveillance

This is an update of my last surveillance blog 6 years ago, much of which is common discussion now. I’ll briefly repeat key points to save you reading it.

They used to say

“Don’t think it

If you must think it, don’t say it

If you must say it, don’t write it

If you must write it, don’t sign it”

Sadly this wisdom is already as obsolete as Asimov’s Laws of Robotics. The last three lines have already been automated.

I recently read of new headphones designed to recognize thoughts so they know what you want to listen to. Simple thought recognition in various forms has been around for 20 years now. It is slowly improving but with smart networked earphones we’re already providing an easy platform into which to sneak better monitoring and better though detection. Sold on convenience and ease of use of course.

You already know that Google and various other large companies have very extensive records documenting many areas of your life. It’s reasonable to assume that any or all of this could be demanded by a future government. I trust Google and the rest to a point, but not a very distant one.

Your phone, TV, Alexa, or even your networked coffee machine may listen in to everything you say, sending audio records to cloud servers for analysis, and you only have naivety as defense against those audio records being stored and potentially used for nefarious purposes.

Some next generation games machines will have 3D scanners and UHD cameras that can 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 and gaze direction 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 and pulse via your Fitbit or smartwatch, and additionally monitoring skin conductivity, your level of excitement, stress or relaxation can easily be inferred. If given to the authorities, this sort of data might be useful to identify pedophiles or murderers, by seeing which men are excited by seeing kids on TV or those who get pleasure from violent games, and it is likely that that will be one of the justifications authorities will use for its use.

Millimetre wave scanning was once controversial when it was introduced in airport body scanners, but we have had no choice but to accept it and its associated abuses –  the only alternative is not to fly. 5G uses millimeter wave too, and it’s reasonable to expect that the same people who can already monitor your movements in your home simply by analyzing your wi-fi signals will be able to do a lot better by analyzing 5G signals.

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.

Add to this the ability to use drones to get close without being noticed. Drones can be very small, fly themselves and automatically survey an area using broad sections of the electromagnetic spectrum.

NFC bank and credit cards not only present risks of theft, but also the added ability to track what we spend, where, on what, with whom. NFC capability in your phone makes some parts of life easier, but NFC has always been yet another doorway that may be left unlocked by security holes in operating systems or apps and apps themselves carry many assorted risks. Many apps ask for far more permissions than they need to do their professed tasks, and their owners collect vast quantities of information for purposes known only to them and their clients. Obviously data can be collected using a variety of apps, and that data linked together at its destination. They are not all honest providers, and apps are still very inadequately regulated and policed.

We’re seeing increasing experimentation with facial recognition technology around the world, from China to the UK, and only a few authorities so far such as in San Francisco have had the wisdom to ban its use. Heavy handed UK police, who increasingly police according to their own political agenda even at the expense of policing actual UK law, have already fined people who have covered themselves to avoid being abused in face recognition trials. It is reasonable to assume they would gleefully seize any future opportunity to access and cross-link all of the various data pools currently being assembled under the excuse of reducing crime, but with the real intent of policing their own social engineering preferences. Using advanced AI to mine zillions of hours of full-sensory data input on every one of us gathered via all this routine IT exposure and extensive and ubiquitous video surveillance, they 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.

It doesn’t even stop with public cameras. Innumerable cameras and microphones on phones, visors, and high street private surveillance will automatically record all this same stuff for everyone, sometimes with benign declared intentions such as making self-driving vehicles safer, sometimes using social media tribes to capture any kind of evidence against ‘the other’. 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 real or invented 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.

The current panic about face recognition is justified. Other AI can lipread better than people and recognize gestures and facial expressions better than people. It adds the knowledge of everywhere you go, everyone you meet, everything you do, everything you say and even every emotional reaction to all of that to all the other knowledge gathered online or by your mobile, fitness band, electronic jewelry or other accessories.

Fools utter the old line: “if you are innocent, you have nothing to fear”. 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 anyone for any reason ever? 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 the abuses we already see. It is what is being and will be collected and stored, forever, that will be available to all future governments of all persuasions and police authorities who consider themselves better than the law. I’ve said often that our governments are often incompetent but rarely malicious. Most of our leaders are nice guys, only a few are corrupt, but most are technologically inept . With an increasingly divided society, there’s a strong chance that the ‘wrong’ government or even a dictatorship could get in. Which of us can be sure we won’t be up against the wall one day?

We’ve already lost the battle to defend privacy. The only bits left are where the technology hasn’t caught up yet. In the future, not even the deepest, most hidden parts of your mind will be private. Pretty much everything about you will be available to an AI-upskilled state and its police.

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The future of youth

Been stalling a while wondering which Y to pick (yellow was my previous target) but my mind was made last night when I watched a news interview about young people’s behavior. The article contrasted the increasingly exciting lives of the elderly with the increasingly lonely lives of the young. It made very sad listening. Youth should be a time of joy, exploration and experimentation, reaching out, stretching boundaries, living life to its full. It’s always had plenty of problems to deal with too, but we’re adding to all the natural stresses of growing up.

The main thrust was that young people are lonely, because they don’t have enough cash to socialize properly so make do with staying in their room and using social media. That is a big enough problem, but a different one caught my attention this time.

The bit that worried me was the interview with a couple of people hoping to start off in professional careers. One pointed out that she had once got drunk and pictures had been uploaded onto social media so now she doesn’t dare drink any more because she doesn’t want pictures or anything else on social media damaging her career prospects. She is effectively living a censored life to protect her career, feeling that she is living her life in camera all the time.

Celebrities are well used to that, but celebrities usually have the compensations of a good income and guaranteed social life so they don’t have to worry about buying a home or seeing other people. Young people are now suffering the constant supervision without the benefits. We’ve had ‘friends with benefits’, now we’re seeing ‘celebs without benefits’ as people are thrust for all the wrong reasons into the spotlight and their lives wrecked, or constantly self-censoring to avoid that happening to them.

This trend will worsen a lot as cameras become even more ubiquitously tied in to social media, via Google Glass and other visors, button cams, necklace cams and a wide range of other lifestyle cameras and lifestyle blogging devices as well as all the smartphones and tablets and smart TV cameras. Everyone must then assume that everything they do and say in company (physical or online) may be recorded.

There are two main reactions to total privacy loss, and both make some sense.

A: Nobody is perfect so everyone will have some embarrassing things about them out there somewhere, so it doesn’t matter much if you do too.

B: The capture of embarrassing situations is subject to pretty random forces so is not equally distributed. You may do something you’d really regret but nobody records it, so you get away with it. Or you may do something less embarrassing but it is recorded, uploaded and widely shared and it may be a permanent blemish on your CV.

Both of these approaches make some sense. If you think you will be in an ordinary job you may not feel it matters very much if there is some dirt on you because nobody will bother to look for it and in any case it won’t be much worse than the people sitting beside you so it won’t put you at any significant disadvantage. But the more high profile the career you want, the more prominent the second analysis becomes. People will be more likely to look for dirt as you rise up the ladder and more likely to use it against you. The professional girl being interviewed on the news was in the second category and understood that the only way to be sure you don’t suffer blemishes and damaged career prospects is to abstain from many activities previously seen as fun.

That is a very sad position and was never intended. The web was invented to make our lives better, making it easier to find and share scientific documents or other knowledge. It wasn’t intended to lock people in their rooms or make them avoid having fun. The devices and services we use on the internet and on mobile networks were also invented to make our lives richer and more fulfilled, to put us more in touch with others and to reduce isolation and loneliness. In some cases they are doing the opposite. Unintended consequences, but consequences nonetheless.

I don’t want to overstate this concern. I have managed to live a very happy life without ever having taken drugs, never having been chained naked to a lamppost, never gone to any dubious clubs and only once or twice getting drunk in public. There are some embarrassing things on the web, but not many. I have had many interesting online exchanges with people I have never met, got involved in many projects I’d never have been involved with otherwise, and on balance the web has made my life better, not worse. I’m very introvert and tend to enjoy activities that don’t involve doing wild things with lots of other people pointing cameras at me. I don’t need much external stimulation and I won’t get bored sitting doing nothing but thinking. I can get excited just writing up a new idea or reading about one. I do self-censor my writing and talks though I’d rather not have to, but other than that I don’t feel I need to alter my activity in case someone is watching. There are pluses and minuses, but more pluses for me.

On the other hand, people who are more extrovert may find it a bigger burden having to avoid exciting situations and suffer a bigger drop in quality of life.

Certainly younger people want to try new things, they want to share exciting situations with other people, many want to get drunk occasionally, some might want to experiment with drugs, and some want to take part in political demonstrations.  and would suffer more than older ones who have already done so. It is a sad consequence of new technology if they feel they can’t in case it destroys their career prospects.

The only ways to recover an atmosphere of casual unpunished experimentation would be either to prevent sharing of photos or videos or chat, basically to ban most of what social networks do, and even the people affected probably don’t want to do that, or to make it possible and easy to have any photos or records of your activity removed. That would be better but still leaves problems. There is no obvious easy solution.

If we can’t, and we almost certainly won’t, then many of our brightest young people will feel shackled, oppressed, unable to let their hair down properly, unable to experience the joy of life that all preceding generations took for granted. It’s an aspect of the privacy debate that needs aired much more. Is it a price worth paying to get the cheap short-lived thrill of laughing at someone else’s embarrassment? I’m not sure it is.

The future of prying

Prying is one side of the privacy coin, hiding being the other side.

Today, lots of snap-chat photos have been released, and no doubt some people are checking to see if there are any of people they know, and it is a pretty safe bet that some will send links to compromising pics of colleagues (or teachers) to others who know them. It’s a sort of push prying isn’t it?

There is more innocent prying too. Checking out Zoopla to see how much your neighbour got for their house is a little bit nosy but not too bad, or at the extremely innocent end of the line, reading someone’s web page is the sort of prying they actually want some people to do, even if not necessarily you.

The new security software I just installed lets parents check out on their kids online activity. Protecting your kids is good but monitoring every aspect of their activity just isn’t, it doesn’t give them the privacy they deserve and probably makes them used to being snooped on so that they accept state snooping more easily later in life. Every parent has to draw their own line, but kids do need to feel trusted as well as protected.

When adults install tracking apps on their partner’s phones, so they can see every location they’ve visited and every call or message they’ve made, I think most of us would agree that is going too far.

State surveillance is increasing rapidly. We often don’t even think of it as such, For example, when speed cameras are linked ‘so that the authorities can make our roads safer’, the incidental monitoring and recording of our comings and goings collected without the social debate. Add that to the replacement of tax discs by number plate recognition systems linked to databases, and even more data is collected. Also ‘to reduce crime’, video from millions of CCTV cameras is also stored and some is high enough quality to be analysed by machine to identify people’s movements and social connectivity. Then there’s our phone calls, text messages, all the web and internet accesses, all these need to be stored, either in full or at least the metadata, so that ‘we can tackle terrorism’. The state already has a very full picture of your life, and it is getting fuller by the day. When it is a benign government, it doesn’t matter so much, but if the date is not erased after a short period, then you need also to worry about future governments and whether they will also be benign, or whether you will be one of the people they want to start oppressing. You also need to worry that increasing access is being granted to your data to a wider variety of a growing number of public sector workers for a widening range of reasons, with seemingly lower security competence, meaning that a good number of people around you will be able to find out rather more about you than they really ought. State prying is always sold to the electorate via assurances that it is to make us safer and more secure and reduce crime, but the state is staffed by your neighbors, and in the end, that means that your neighbors can pry on you.

Tracking cookies are a fact of everyday browsing but mostly they are just trying to get data to market to us more effectively. Reading every email to get data for marketing may be stretching the relationship with the customer to the limits, but many of us gmail users still trust Google not to abuse our data too much and certainly not to sell on our business dealings to potential competitors. It is still prying though, however automated it is, and a wider range of services are being linked all the time. The internet of things will provide data collection devices all over homes and offices too. We should ask how much we really trust global companies to hold so much data, much of it very personal, which we’ve seen several times this year may be made available to anyone via hackers or forced to be handed over to the authorities. Almost certainly, bits of your entire collected and processed electronic activity history could get you higher insurance costs, in trouble with family or friends or neighbors or the boss or the tax-man or the police. Surveillance doesn’t have to be real time. Databases can be linked, mashed up, analysed with far future software or AI too. In the ongoing search for crimes and taxes, who knows what future governments will authorize? If you wouldn’t make a comment in front of a police officer or tax-man, it isn’t safe to make it online or in a text.

Allowing email processing to get free email is a similar trade-off to using a supermarket loyalty card. You sell personal data for free services or vouchers. You have a choice to use that service or another supermarket or not use the card, so as long as you are fully aware of the deal, it is your lifestyle choice. The lack of good competition does reduce that choice though. There are not many good products or suppliers out there for some services, and in a few there is a de-facto monopoly. There can also be a huge inconvenience and time loss or social investment cost in moving if terms and conditions change and you don’t want to accept the deal any more.

On top of that state and global company surveillance, we now have everyone’s smartphones and visors potentially recording anything and everything we do and say in public and rarely a say in what happens to that data and whether it is uploaded and tagged in some social media.

Some companies offer detective-style services where they will do thorough investigations of someone for a fee, picking up all they can learn from a wide range of websites they might use. Again, there are variable degrees that we consider acceptable according to context. If I apply for a job, I would think it is reasonable for the company to check that I don’t have a criminal record, and maybe look at a few of the things I write or tweet to see what sort of character I might be. I wouldn’t think it appropriate to go much further than that.

Some say that if you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear, but none of them has a 3 digit IQ. The excellent film ‘Brazil’ showed how one man’s life was utterly destroyed by a single letter typo in a system scarily similar to what we are busily building.

Even if you are a saint, do you really want the pervert down the road checking out hacked databases for personal data on you or your family, or using their public sector access to see all your online activity?

The global population is increasing, and every day a higher proportion can afford IT and know how to use it. Networks are becoming better and AI is improving so they will have greater access and greater processing potential. Cyber-attacks will increase, and security leaks will become more common. More of your personal data will become available to more people with better tools, and quite a lot of them wish you harm. Prying will increase geometrically, according to Metcalfe’s Law I think.

My defense against prying is having an ordinary life and not being famous or a major criminal, not being rich and being reasonably careful on security. So there are lots of easier and more lucrative targets. But there are hundreds of millions of busybodies and jobsworths and nosy parkers and hackers and blackmailers out there with unlimited energy to pry, as well as anyone who doesn’t like my views on a topic so wants to throw some mud, and their future computers may be able to access and translate and process pretty much anything I type, as well as much of what I say and do anywhere outside my home.

I find myself self-censoring hundreds of times a day. I’m not paranoid. There are some people out to get me, and you, and they’re multiplying fast.

 

 

 

The new right to be forgotten

The European Court of Justice recently ruled that Google has to remove links to specific articles on (proper) request where the damage to the individual outweighs the public right to know.

It has generated a lot of reaction. Lots of people have done things, or have been accused of doing things, and would prefer that the records of that don’t appear when people do a search for them. If a pedophile or a corrupt politician wants to erase something from their past, then many of us would object. If it is someone who once had a bad debt and long since paid it off, that seems more reasonable. So is there any general principle that would be useful? I think so.

When someone is convicted of a crime, sometimes they are set to prison. When their sentence terminates, they are considered to have suffered enough punishment and are free to live a normal life. However, they keep a criminal record, and if they apply for a job, the potential employer can find out that they have done something. So they don’t get a clean record. Even that is being challenged now and the right to start again with a clean slate is being considered. In trials, usually the prosecution is not allowed to mention previous crimes lest they prejudice the jury – the accused is being tried for this crime, not for previous ones and their guilt should be assessed on the evidence, not prejudice.

The idea that after a suitable period of punishment you can have the record wiped clean is appealing. Or if not the formal record, then at least easy casual access to it. It has a feel of natural justice to it. Everyone should have the right to start again once they’ve made amends, paid their debt to society. Punishment should not last for ever, even long after the person has reformed.

This general principle could be applied online. For crimes, when a judge sentences the guilty, they could include in their punishment a statement of the longevity of internet records, the duration of public shame. Our lawmakers should decide the fit and proper duration of that for all kinds of crime just as they do the removal of liberty. When that terminates, those records should no longer turn up in searches within that jurisdiction. For non-criminal but embarrassing life events, there should be an agreed tariff too and it could be implemented by Information Commissioners or similar authorities, who would maintain a search exemption list to be checked against search results before display. Society may well decide that for certain things that are in public interest. If someone took drugs at college, or got drunk and went rather too far at a party, or was late paying a debt, or had an affair, or any of a million other things, then the impact on their future life would have a time limit, which hopefully would be the same for everyone. My understanding of this ECJ ruling is that is broadly what is intended. The precise implementation details can now be worked out. If so, I don’t really have any big objection, though I may well be missing something.

It is indisputably censorship and some people will try to use their power or circumstances to get into the clear earlier than seems right. However, so far the ECJ ruling only covers the appearance in search engines, i.e casual research. It will stop you easily finding out about something in your neighbor’s or a colleague’s distant past. It won’t prevent journalists finding things out, because a proper journalist will do their research thoroughly and not just type a couple of words into Google. In its current form, this ruling will not amount to full censorship, more of a nosey neighbour gossip filter. The rules will need to be worked out and to be applied. We should hope that the rules are made fair and the same for all, with no exceptions for the rich and powerful.

 

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 as 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.

Chips in everything, but at what cost?

Lots of press coverage today on the new ARM  Cortex MO+ chip, that will be about 1mm square and has a battery that lasts several years since it uses so little power. It is being hailed as the next big thing in the ‘chips in everything’ idea space.  Here’s a pic:

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OK, here’s a better one 🙂

There is plenty of coverage of the new chip. Do a web search for popular press stuff, or the Freescale website press releases, but I like EW for this sort of thing: http://www.electronicsweekly.com/Articles/13/03/2012/53195/arm-announces-cortex-m0.htm

Like many futurists, I’ve been yacking about chips in everything for 20 years or more, but now it is almost here, the media are going nuts regularly with all the smart light bulbs, smart fridges, and the consequent kitchen rage, and the generally smart environments we will inhabit. Some of this stuff will be in demand, some won’t. The automated home as been launched again and again since the 1950s and there still is little evidence that we want most of the things that are possible. Smart waste bins have been around 20 years but only the most fanatical gadget freaks have one. Ditto internet fridges that order replacement milk or taps you can turn on from the office, and coffee machines that download new recipes off the net. Yes you can, but do you want to? Probably not.

It is certainly possible to put a 1mm chip in lots of things and add some sort of useful or fun functionality, especially since the chips will start at around 20p each, and the price will soon tumble to almost nothing. IPv6 will enable enough address space, and we’ll have to switch to that soon anyway. This chip doesn’t do everything, but when partnered with sensors and storage and comms, you have a pretty useful activator, and activators will be the basis of the grown up cloud. The 1990s future is starting to come over the horizon at last. Maybe slightly ahead of my usual ’30 years to the far future’ deadline.

On the other hand, the downside is pretty big too. Privacy and security will be enormously difficult to preserve in that kind of world. It won’t be long before the whole package can be sub millimetre. You can drop a few 1mm activators through the vents of an office copier/printer, intercept all the associated data and pass it all to a cleaner with a scanner later on. You could glue them to banknotes, or hide them in free pens, or in junk mail that goes in your office bin. No one would notice them, but you could spy on the holders pretty closely. Useful for spying on terrorists and criminals, but also a potential invasion of all our privacy. You could sugar coat them, sprinkle them from planes and let ants take them into caves to spy on rebels. Or just stick them on mosquitoes and let them go. Lots of civil applications and lots of military ones too. The list is endless. But, goodbye privacy, and goodbye security. Once again, there is still no free lunch.

How much choice should you have?

Like most people I can’t get through an hour without using Google. They are taking a lot of flak at the moment over privacy concerns, as are Apple, Facebook and other big IT companies. There are two sides to this though.

On one side, you need to know what is being done and want the option to opt out of personal information sharing, tracing and other big brothery types of things.

On the other, and we keep forgetting this, most people have no idea what they want. Ford noted that if you asked the customer what they wanted, they would say a faster horse. Sony’s Akio Morita observed that there was little point in doing customer surveys because customers have no idea what is possible. He went ahead and made the Walkman, knowing that people would buy it, even though no-one had asked for it. Great visions often live far ahead of customer desires. Sometimes it is best just to do it and then ask.

I think to a large extent, these big IT companies are in that same boat.

If your collective IT knows what you do all day (and by that I mean all your gadgets, and all the apps and web services and cloud stuff you use), and it knows a hell of a lot, then it is possible to make your life a lot easier by providing you with a very talented and benign almost telepathic personal assistant. Pretty much for free, at point of delivery anyway.

If we hold companies back with  too many legal barriers because of quite legitimate privacy concerns, this won’t happen properly. We will get a system with too much internal friction that fails frequently and never quite works.

But can we trust them? Apple, Google and Facebook all have far too much arrogance at the moment, so perhaps they do need to be put in their place. But they aren’t evil dictators. They don’t want to harm us at all, they just want to find new ways to help us because it’s on the back of those services that they can get even richer and more powerful. Is that good or bad?

I deleted and paused my web history on Google and keep my privacy settings tight on everything else. Maybe you do the same. But I actually can’t wait till they develop all the fantastic new services they are working on. As a technology futurologist I have a pretty good idea how it will be, I’ve been lecturing about Google’s new augmented reality headset since 3 years before Google existed. Once everyone else has taken all the risks and it’s all safely up and running, I’ll let them have it all. Trouble is, if we all do that it won’t happen.