Earlier today I was thinking about a conversation I had with one of my best friends on the issue of privacy long before the subject became a fashionable one. She had a new baby, I had just microchipped one of my pets for the first time a couple of days prior (yes, it was that long ago), there was a kidnapping that was making headlines, and we were talking about safety. I remember asking her what would she do if someone were to come to her and tell her that there was a new GPS chip that could be implanted under her baby’s skin, one that would ensure that, no matter what happened, the child’s location could be pinpointed in a matter of seconds anywhere in the world. The trade off was that such an implant would be permanent, her child would be tracked for life… and that since she was the one who would making that call, her baby would have no say on the matter.
To me the idea of being tracked 24/7 was horrifying, and she was not too keen on it herself, but at the same time when she weighed her distaste for the thing against her own fears –even if those fears revolved around a very remote possibility– she hesitated. No, she didn’t want to be tracked herself, but the possibility of allaying what were some of her worst fears, fears that were actually being fanned by a media machine, was obviously alluring to her.
The thing is that if such an implant could be sold to the parents, it would come to be accepted by the children and soon enough even the notion of questioning the wisdom of such a thing would come to be seen as ludicrous. In time it could probably become legally mandated without anyone raising too much of a fuss about it. Of course, there are no such implants, yet, but then again, who needs them?
In the years since that talk took place we have seen the advent of smartphones. These little pocket computers that provide us with every answer when we want them, where we want them, that tell us not just where we are, but also how we can get to where we are going. They are always by our side, they have our number (literally)… and they are watching us. They have become a part of us, so much so that we hardly ever give them a second thought. They follow us everywhere we go, reporting our every move, storing our every thought, and yet those phones are only the beginning. The next generation, currently embodied by Google Glass, is already on its way. That next generation will not just do everything the phone does, but it will also see everything we see (including those who are not wearing said glasses), and the consensus seems to be that after that the technology will get literally under our skin, thus becoming truly inescapable (who would object, for instance, to a system that would ensure that an ambulance be immediately dispatched to an elderly person, known to be alone, whose vital signs suddenly show signs of distress, even in the absence of an emergency call?). Those implants I mentioned to my friend all those years ago will finally become a reality, only they won’t be confined to the next generation, they won’t be sold to the parents by a bunch of fearmongers. They will be sold to all of us by taking advantage of our fears and desires. We may not realize it, but we have already been conditioned to welcome something that a little more than a decade ago would have been unthinkable with open arms. We have also been conditioned to crave more, always more, and the tech giants are more that willing to comply.
A smartphone, and not even a top of the line one, is far more powerful than the computer I had when I had that talk with my friend.
Of course, it’s not just gadgets. It’s also the way in which social media has transformed not just our lives, but also our perceptions. That world of status updates where everything is shared, where privacy is dismissed as nothing but a quaint notion, in which so many people seem to spend most of their waking hours is also part of the equation, as is the famous cloud. In the past you kept your files in your hard drive, and you kept a number of backups, that were rarely up to date, pretty much all over the place (and good luck finding the one you needed if disaster struck). Now, that is no longer an issue. We can have our files backed up automatically to a distant server. Those backups are always up to date and synched across our many gadgets and devices. It is a wonderful thing, almost magical, but the thing is that the servers where our files are being kept are no longer ours. The moment those backups are created they are out of our control. We are inputting our information into the system without giving much thought to the question of where does our information go from there, to the question of what is that information being used for and by whom… and the events of the past month or so have made it all too clear that that information is being used, that it is being gathered and analyzed.
Some have made the analogy with a dating site, a social network, or even with targeted advertising, but there is one crucial difference: you have to join a dating site or a social network, you can opt out of most targeted advertising (though admittedly that one takes some doing). You can’t opt out of government surveillance, but at the same time there is the fact that all too often that government surveillance takes advantage of our desire to be part of a social network, to join a dating site, to make sure our files are safe, or to accept targeted advertising, and there is where we can say ‘no’.
Yes, Big Brother is watching over us, there is no denying that, and there is also no turning back. That is a fact, but then again we are ourselves complicit in the way in which things have unfolded, in the amount of information we are willing to make available. We are too willing to feed the beast. We want the shinny beads, we want the trinkets, we want the best deals, the status updates, the ‘friends’ we have never met.. the ‘friends’ we will never meet. We crave the convenience of instant backups and the sense of community provided by social networks. That is okay… as long as we know just what it is that we are getting into.
There’s nothing wrong with smartphones, social networks, the cloud or even targeted advertising. All of these things can be useful. They are extremely powerful tools that can definitely be put to good use, but the thing is that they come with a price, and what we can’t afford to do is lose sight of what that price happens to be… or of who else might be using those tools and to what ends.