A post-privacy future?

13 Aug 2013

Over the weekend I attended Nine Worlds, London’s first annual geekfest – “a great big amusement park of geeky interests”, says the programme. For some it was the chance to spend a few days dressed as characters from Game of Thrones but my interest was purely IMPRINTS, honestly. Besides the cosplay and nerf guns there were some really interesting presentations (some academic, some from science fiction authors who blew my social-scientific mind with their technical knowledge) on everything from the legal regulation of robots through the future of technology and society to the likelihood of space travel.

There was also a panel dedicated to considering whether the future will be dystopian or utopian, but this was a theme that ran through a number of discussions, including that which addressed the future of technology and society. Though I had hoped we’d get on to the topic of biometrics, the session was dominated by what felt like more immediate questions about data security. There was plenty of healthy disagreement on the panel – Cory Doctorow felt that Charles Stross’s prediction that “privacy will be dead in 10 years’ time” was a self-fulfilling prophecy – but it was largely a dystopian hour and a half.

We are headed for the “post-privacy” era, it seems. Stross’s suggestion that we will soon see computer chips embedded in every square foot of pavement may sound fanciful, but the arguments are convincing, and the reaction of the gathered audience (so large that some people were sat cross-legged on the floor) showed that these concerns are very real, and very immediate, for a lot of people. Ostensibly a computerised landscape could send out alerts about incidents (dog poo, potholes), provide real-time information for driverless cars… almost anything, creating an endless flow of data that results in the tracking of everyone everywhere. In this world, Professor Lilian Edwards pointed out the protection of consent is necessarily bypassed.

Doctorow was keen to stress that encryption and decryption technologies enabled individuals to protect their information and would continue to do so – “the universe wants us to have secrets”; as more of life became an online activity, so there would be greater push to secure the same freedoms we have enjoyed offline. But Edwards and Stross were less convinced, not least because we have recently seen that political will is driving to strip people of their privacy. Why aren’t things automatically encrypted? Edwards asked, highlighting the lack of general public knowledge and expertise. Manufacturers need incentives to build in measures that help us to evade surveillance, and (at least at the moment) these are difficult to identify and in any case heavily outweighed by the coercion of governments.

In considering public responses to identity management technologies we need to keep in mind these sorts of discussions: that is, discussions among the highly knowledgeable, the keenly interested, and arguably the best equipped for maintaining their autonomy and privacy. It is interesting that even in this room, the notion of sousveillance was written off as logically flawed. Each possibility came with a caveat. Are we living in an Orwellian world, or a Huxleyan one, someone asked. Both, came the reply. With a bit of Kafka thrown in.