Can We Ever Expereince Privacy Again?

14 Aug 2004|Darrel Rhea

We have been having conversations about the impact of ubiquitous monitoring technologies for years. Paul Saffo was arguing passionately about this with me over a decade ago. While I have understood the cultural implications on an abstract, theoretical level, it is starting to come more into focus for me. I have never been paranoid about Big Brother, but I am noticing several things coming together.

Your movements in public will be video and audio recorded.

Public sector surveillance is huge. In the West End of London, a Wifi network of cameras tracks the movement on every street and public area to reduce crime. In Queensland, they are videoing the shoreline to prevent drowning accidents. There are thousands of government video cameras in Manhattan. Wifi cameras are even showing up in wilderness areas. Video surveillance by public entities is exploding but only represents a tiny percentage of the activity.

Private sector surveillance is becoming a standard as the technology has improved and costs have plummeted. Every store, cab, theater, hotel will have multiple cameras. I have been researching systems for my boat, and have discovered how dirt cheap wireless video is. If you ran a business, you’d be crazy not to implement a system. Example: If you go to a Target store today, your every move is recorded from the time you enter the parking lot till you leave.

Billions of individuals will also be carrying devices (phones initially) that can record and publish your image. Systems in homes are becoming common. Hand-held video baby monitoring devices, nanny cams, home security will start extending beyond the borders of the home as we record our daily experience.

Your personal identity will be tracked with your movements.

Facial recognition software is here and it works. What law enforcement entity will be able to resist using the technology when it is cheap and commonly available? When will it show up in your home security system?

Your products will be able to be recognized wirelessly and monitored.

Wal-Mart’s deployment of RF tags in stores began rolling out these last weeks. (Tiny radios embedded in a chip that identifies the details of a product.) While this is initially intended as a warehouse technology for efficient inventory management, its potential impact will extend well beyond this. Anybody with the right radio and some software could know what products you are carrying.

Nightmare Scenario:

You emerge from the garden store with a purchase that includes a bag of fertilizer (for your roses). Waking down the street to your parked car, you are identified by video surveillance, an automated data base search program uncovers that you have purchased a book with the word “bomb” in the title (a book of romantic poetry), and have played an on-line version of a flight simulation game (but avoided developing your landing skills), and have achieved expert levels in the terrorist scenario on-line game “Counter-Strike.” You never knew it but your last name means “Hellboy” in Farsi.

Suddenly, an unmarked white van rushes up, the door opens, two men in suits grab you and put a hood over your head. You wake up in Guantanamo Bay prison where you languish in silence for years.

Now, I don’t really think that the civil liberties are threatened, but our right to privacy sure might be. How this technology plays out will be interesting. What will designers do with it? What should they do with it? Let me know.

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