The ACLU has recently announced a Surveillance Society Clock which depicts, in their view, how close we are to a total surveillance society. At the time of this writing the clock sits at 11:54pm – just six minutes from midnight!
This clock got me thinking about what series of plausible events might lead up to total surveillance. Unfortunately, such an exercise turned out to be spooky because I quickly concluded that a total surveillance society is not only possible but a certainty. It will happen through a series of fairly quick small steps, it will be irreversible, and the real shocker is that I suspect consumers will find it "irresistible!"
The Six Ticks till Midnight
The Six Ticks till Midnight
11:54pm – All cell phone are GPS enabled
Consumers love all of the location-based services. They’ll know that Starbucks is just ahead on the left. The kids just made it home. To avoid the traffic accident at I-15 and Central Parkway, try Pierre Avenue instead. As the prices drop for GPS cell phones, everyone wants one. Manufacturers decide there is no point in making cell phones that don’t have GPS.
11:55pm – RFID chips everywhere
The cost of RFID becomes so cheap that objects of all sizes and shapes are embedded with these little transmitters, each announcing what they are … to nearby receivers. RFIDs find their way into your car, keys, sunglasses, prescription bottles and underwear. They also happen to be in everything else ranging from your dinner plates to your casino chips. While manufacturers need this to improve supply chains and lower costs, consumers applaud the new conveniences, e.g., faster check-out lines, simplified warranty service and merchandise returns, etc.
11:56pm – Biometric user authentication is added to cell phones
Recognizing that cell phones contain so much information, manufacturers start integrating biometric user authentication (e.g., fingerprint). Consumers cannot seem to live without this feature because it prevents information loss if the phone is stolen and, better yet, now that phones can be tied to specific owners, consumers are able to use the cell phone to pay for goods and services without having to even take out their wallet. Predictably, there is less identity theft. Everyone is a winner! Responding to market demand, manufacturers add biometric user authentication to all cell phones.
11:57pm – Cell phones become RFID readers
In a natural convergence of two very useful technologies, cell phones are designed to also be RFID readers. Cell phones can now probe nearby objects recording "what" things (e.g., your Dolce & Gabbana sun glasses), "when" things (e.g., 7:35pm last night) and "where" things (e.g., at your friend Bill’s house). Consumers absolutely love this feature because it makes it so easy to manage all their stuff, e.g., where were my sunglasses last seen. So many nifty services are now possible that user demand for RFID-enabled cell phones goes through the roof. Consumers can’t seem to live without it.
11:58pm – Cash is replaced by cell phone debit
Why go to the ATM or manage all those plastic cards when you can move cash via your cell phone? No more losing money. No more stolen credit cards. Consumers also appreciate the improved transaction speeds, and retailers like the fact that many cashier errors are eliminated. The cashless society emerges because it is preferred.
11:59pm – All persons carry cell phones at all times
By this point in time, most everybody will be hard pressed to ever separate themselves from their cell phone. In fact, consumers will be incentivized to keep it with them at all times. For example, insurance companies may offer lower rates for those consumers who agree to always carry their cell phone as the GPS will help determine driving habits. Furthermore, since cell phones contain important life saving data like emergency contact info, current medical prescriptions and blood type, the value of marrying a cell phone to every person become obvious. Between personal benefit, corporate benefit, state and federal services, health and safety issues, immigration and national security it becomes a no brainer to mandate legislatively that every person over the age of six carry their cell phone. Instead of having to have a social security number or carry some form of ID, your cell phone will do.
12:00am – Welcome to the Total Surveillance Society
Total? How total? I guess one might argue that my made-up sequence of events results in a lot of surveillance but not total surveillance. Maybe total surveillance would require that every bathroom have cameras covering every angle and people having to wear skull caps with mind reading instrumentation (coming?). My argument simply being: there comes a degree of surveillance under which everything that matters will be digitally recorded – one’s location, communications, transactions, associations to others, and one’s proximity to things.
Oh yeah, one more thing, no more need for facial recognition (a very hard problem many years off anyway). In this coming world, all that useless video being collected can now be efficiently recalled because GPS data provides the missing link … who was where when?
While the exact technologies or the exact sequence of events may unfold quite differently, nonetheless such a future is coming. And this future is being created by us consumers, not the government!
Consumers are funding the surveillance economy, with the blistering pace of this extraordinary surveillance being driven by ordinary people who relish all the technological advances and willing to entirely trade in their information and privacy as they optimize their life.
Well, if this is the future, then I think here are some key considerations:
1. Under what condition and authority can an actor (i.e., a person, an organization, a government) look at what data, and when?
2. How will we know when an actor is breaking the rules?
3. Will oversight and accountability be easier in a total surveillance society?
4. How do we make sure that access to extraordinary knowledge is not limited to a few? And, how do we ensure that data about us is knowable by us?
5. For the few people that resist being plugging into the matrix – will they be less employable, less trustworthy, or suspected of hiding criminal activity?
With all this in mind, it seems ever more important that the technology community better engage the privacy community – there simply is not enough conversation going on between these two camps – and time is of the essence. [See: Responsible Innovation: Staying Engaged with the Privacy Community]
Why are more people not working on privacy-preserving technology e.g., anonymization, immutable audit, selective revelation, data masking, data expiration and destruction services, etc. – and more importantly why are not more organizations starting to take advantage of these emerging privacy-enhancing alternatives?
Closing Thought: Will virtual reality be the only remaining place one can enjoy anonymity and freedom of action?