Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Future of Privacy - Radical Openness

Generally, my visions of tomorrow are quite optimistic. But there is one area where I am decidedly a pessimist. The future of privacy seems bleak. Many of us who are relatively tech-savvy have already given up much of our privacy voluntarily for the sake of convenience, fun, or money. I am a member of a social network which tracks my every movement by allowing me to check in with my smartphone to nearly every location I visit. Another of my social networks allows me to publish my every thought in real time, as long as it doesn’t exceed 140 characters. A popular financial website requires that users turn over the passwords to their bank accounts, then analyzes the users’ financial habits. Nearly all young people belong to a social network which makes no secret of its desire to collect our personal information to mine the data.

Ten years ago, most people would have been shocked by these technologies. Who would have thought that the biggest threat to our privacy would come from us voluntarily giving up our information? Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg rightly received a lot of criticism by forcing Facebook users to publicly reveal their personal information by default, then claiming that Facebook was merely adapting to users’ declining expectations of privacy. Zuckerberg’s claim was certainly untrue – Facebook is one of the driving forces behind declining expectations of privacy, rather than merely a response to it – but his instinct is probably correct that users will tolerate more intrusions on their privacy once they are accustomed to it.

My fellow futurist blogger David Houle notes, “As technology advances, privacy declines.” I think this is unfortunately correct, and very little can be done to change it. Tech-savvy young people in developed countries certainly have less privacy than they did a decade ago, and are mostly OK with that. In the coming decades, society will have to radically redefine its notions of privacy. I imagine that there may come a time when it is no longer practical to expect to be able to travel anywhere without your visit ending up in an online database, perhaps publicly available to anyone who cares. In the not too distant future, there may be vast government or corporate databases of genomes and other biometric indicators from nearly everyone in the nation.

Does this mean that an Orwellian dictatorship is likely? I don’t think so. Chances are, people will be willing to adjust their privacy expectations downward for the sake of convenience, just as they do now for Facebook. It remains to be seen if lowered expectations of privacy will actually help dictatorships thrive. Repressive states are increasingly blocking the very same tools that are responsible for the declining expectations of privacy – Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and even Foursquare. It seems that these governments view them more as tools for subversion than as useful ways to snoop on political opponents.

This past week, the US Senate voted to confirm Elena Kagan as the next Supreme Court Justice. Much of her testimony dealt with her constitutional views on the right to privacy. In the United States at the present time, this is mostly just a code phrase for a nominee’s views on abortion, but I think that the right to privacy will become a more important issue in its own right for future confirmation hearings. The Supreme Court will probably eventually need to define what the right to privacy entails, who it protects, and from whom it protects them.

In the legislature, stronger safeguards for privacy can help prevent the emergence of corporate Big Brothers. Google recently decided to withdraw from China instead of obeying China’s censorship laws or facilitating its eavesdropping on its citizens. As commendable as this is, most large corporations are not as civic-minded. Yahoo! has been known to turn over personal emails from political dissidents to dictatorships. A law modeled on the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act which prevents US companies from infringing on their users’ privacy, wherever in the world they are located, would be a major step toward keeping Big Brother at bay. American companies would no longer have the excuse that they will be singled out for persecution if they refuse to participate in invasions of privacy by the governments of the countries in which they operate. Very few nations could feasibly ban every American company merely for obeying US laws.

Ultimately, government action and corporate good deeds can only slow the inevitable shift toward less privacy, and perhaps prevent some of its worst excesses. In the future, governments, corporations, and individuals can and will gain access to far more information about us than is currently available in the public domain. The totalitarianism of Big Brother probably isn’t going to happen…but hundreds of Little Brothers may be watching you soon, if they aren’t already.

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