THE PRIVACY QUESTION
It might be worth remembering that this all-pervasive network that can gather knowledge about ‘who you are’, ‘what you are like’ and ‘what you are doing’, will emerge through tens of thousands of tiny steps.
Since the perfect search engine would have total access to your everyday life and know everything there is to know about you, ideally from Google etc’s point of view, privacy would be eliminated altogether. But, of course, people might disagree with this. We can therefore expect a competitive advantage for search software that best balances the need for total access to a person’s life on the one hand, and a desire for privacy on the other. Each step will almost certainly entail sacrificing a little bit of privacy but more than compensate for that with the benefits the technology affords.
It can be amusing to look back on the fears that people once expressed over technology we are very comfortable with. In 1876, after Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated the telephone, one newspaper wondered if “the powers of darkness are somehow in league with it”. And in 1879, one critic argued that anyone able to phone anyone else was to be feared “by the sane and sensible person”.
Nowadays we are surrounded by communications technology and this has allowed the fast-growing phenomenon of social-networking sites. And those fears concerning loss of privacy continue to be voiced. “I am continually shocked and appalled at the details people voluntarily post online about themselves”, said Jon Cullus, chief security officer at PGP.
Privacy issues fade in importance, either because they are addressed with laws or conventions, or they are simply understood and accepted by the public. The baby boomer generation is quite comfortable sacrificing a certain amount of privacy in exchange for the convenience of making phone calls.
Generation X treat the Internet and mobile phones as indifferently as their parents treat TV and radio, and swap personal details over social networking sites as freely as mum and dad exchange phone numbers with their contacts. Generation Y may live in a society where ‘smart dust’ is ubiquitous- trillions of nearly invisible sensors exhaustively monitoring the population and providing what we would think of as impossibly futuristic computational and virtual reality possibilities. They, perhaps, will treat it with all the indifference of generation X’s attitude towards the Web.
Another point is that we are not always aware of the privacy issues surrounding a technology. Many people, for instance, are unaware that they carry a location-tracking device in their pocket. All mobile phones transmit a unique identifying number to the nearest cellular mast. In urban areas where masts are densely packed and the phones can communicate with several masts at once, triangulation can be used to determine your position within a few tens of meters.
From the perspective of each current generation in biometric and search software technology, the next generation will seem like a similarly small step requiring the loss of a negligible bit of privacy in exchange for a clear benefit. But, of course, cumulative steps mount up. This fact was noticed by Wired writer Steven Levy when he wrote, “no matter how innocuous your individual tweets, the aggregate ends up being a scary-deep self portrait”. Once hitherto separate networks become woven together, the result might be a profoundly powerful surveillance system. What is more, embedded in that system there may well be machines talking to machines on behalf of people, quietly and efficiently offering services so useful that life without Digital Gaia is even more inconceivable than life without a telephone or mail service.
We saw earlier that evolution is defined as, ‘the process of developing into a different form’. We have seen how the Internet might become a pervasive presence via networked embedded microprocessors. We have also seen how projects like the Semantic Web and biometrics could be combined with that pervasive Internet to produce a ‘Digital Gaia’ that is very effective at gathering information about who you are, what you are like and what you are doing.