Surveillance

Privacy and security are the buzz words which have defined the bulk of conversation around the technology sector of late. From the Edward Snowden NSA leaks, to Facebook and OkCupid manipulating user emotions, to the fight for Do Not Track options in online advertising, to the trend toward anonymity and ephemerality in social networking and messaging, it’s clear that the average consumer is more aware of her privacy rights than ever and more intent on demanding accountability from those who infringe upon them.

With this in mind, the contrast is startling when considering the dystopian picture painted by the Wall Street Journal’s Richard Clarke, who predicts a future where only the wealthy will have any expectation of privacy. He writes:

While storage of vast amounts of data has led to hugely valuable benefits from analysis and correlation, it also has led to a significant erosion, if not almost complete destruction, of any meaningful concept of privacy.

Each of the hundreds of times a day information about you is recorded and stored on a networked device, new data becomes available for somebody. Data about your health, location, political views, buying preferences, finances, relationships and security riskiness are available to untold interested parties. Sometimes you knowingly authorized their acquisition of that data, often you did so obliviously, and occasionally that information is obtained covertly.

This trend is hardly a new discovery, and as Clarke notes, it’s not one that shows any signs of abating:

In Europe, governments have attempted to limit access to the new treasure troves of data. In the U.S., where the data manipulation industry was spawned and grew into a cash cow, such efforts have been less successful… Barring some civilization-threatening disaster, the next 25 years of cyberspace will see a growing gush of data, an increasingly rapid spreading of interconnected devices into every aspect of our lives, in our cars, throughout our homes, and indeed, into our bodies.

(Where do I sign up?!?!)

Clarke predicts that surveillance will not only be ubiquitous, but willfully tolerated by the masses who have largely forgotten a time before such ways. Moreover, he envisions privacy advocacy groups too “overwhelmed by corporate interests, the security industrial complex” to weigh in on the issue. Where Clarke’s future vision departs from the well established narrative is in the impact he views class having on the privacy of future citizens. He writes:

Privacy may then be a commodity that only the wealthy can acquire, but only briefly and in special sanctuaries while taking expensive off-the-grid vacations in locations without surveillance cameras or the tracking devices we call mobile phones.

Pando has spent some time contemplating what the future might look like in our “View from Dystopia” series, including “The NSA in 7 years,” “The drones are coming,” and “Google Glass in 10 years.” None of it is very pretty. And as our “Surveillance Valley” reporting has outlined, we’ve already gone much further down this path than many realize. Between corporations like Google and Facebook and state intelligence agencies, nearly all of our our online behavior is tracked, our phone calls are recorded, and details of our at-home activities (think Nest, Dropcam, and even cable boxes) are now falling under the same scrutiny. Even privacy-minded tools like Tor and encrypted email have either been created by or compromised by the security industrial complex, removing what protection they offered.

Clarke’s unsettling future dystopia is a bit too similar to Hollywood thrillers like Minority Report and The Island to seem plausible, but then again it’s not too great of a departure from today’s reality to be ruled out entirely. On one hand it’s hard to imagine the public failing to notice such shifts in liberty. On the other, free stuff (Gmail and WiFi) and greater convenience (personalization, location awareness, and smart homes) have already proven tempting enough.

So as our privacy becomes more and more scarce, how far are we away from such a future where it becomes like any other precious good, available only to the rich?