In H.G. Well’s War of the Worlds, the author theorized about a vast and cool intelligence that watched mankind’s every move. Sound familiar? Thaddeus Howze explains how that is happening today.
If you started with the video, you might have had the impression you’d heard (or read) this somewhere before. You have. It was part of a famous 1930 radio broadcast that began like this:
“No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same. No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of life upon them as impossible or improbable. It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days. At most terrestrial men fancied there might be other men upon Mars, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to welcome a missionary enterprise. Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. And early in the twentieth century came the great disillusionment.”
This is the introduction to H.G. Well’s War of the Worlds. In his book, he theorized about a vast and cool intelligence that watched Mankind’s every move before making the decision to come to Earth to conquer and destroy Humanity. Sounds grim. This radio broadcast actually put fear in the hearts of people everywhere. It is one of the 20th century’s greatest hoaxes. How prophetic a hoax Wells would never know.
Why begin a video about the loss of privacy to future technology using language very similar to that broadcast? Mostly because today’s skeptical mindset dismisses the loss of privacy as little more than a hoax, something to be talked about on the news and then forgotten.
But before you decide to forget, let me enlighten you on a few things:
The internet is everywhere. You know this. You are reading this article on the internet. You get your news this way, you read your sports this way, you play your games here, you connect with your friends here. If you are working in modern technology, you do your job here.
What if I were to reveal to you, everything you do on the internet is capable, nay is likely already being tracked by someone or in this case, something; a technology called an algorithm? The algorithm is given a warm and soft name belying its sinister intention: they are most affectionately known as cookies. Everyone loves cookies, right?
Yes, well these cookies have more inside of them than chocolate chips. These cookies monitor your movement on the internet. Every website you go to, every transaction you make and depending on which cookies you have, you could have your bank information or other personal data being monitored, reviewed or even stolen.
Once such software was fought against, considered anathema. Used only by criminal organizations creating malware for theft of your data. But we aren’t talking about thieves today, per se.
Today we are talking about legitimate enterprises who are ‘data mining’ your internet activity for marketing purposes. Any time you interact on the internet with a software product, whether you pay for it or not, you are likely, without your knowledge, giving away information that the product’s vendor will sell to other firms in order to target you more effectively with advertising.
You make this agreement, particularly with sites which do not charge for their services like Facebook or Twitter when you sign up and agree to their User Agreement, commonly called a EULA (end user licensing agreement). If you were to read your EULA (and 90% of people using online services don’t) you would realize you have given such companies liberties to take any information you put into those services and sell them to outside marketing companies so they can mine that data for information about you. (See: Top EULA Gotchas: Website Fine Print Hall of Shame)
You probably know this already and figure, “privacy is dead”. I’m not doing anything wrong and hell, I even want them to know who I am so I can get better deals and better, more relevant advertising when I am using those ‘free’ services. And if that is your perspective, it is your prerogative. But what I am about to tell you may change how you see this.
Just as your movements in the virtual world can be tracked via cookies, the real world is slowly catching up and bringing computerized surveillance to the physical world.
Odds are you know that your real world environment is increasingly being monitored. There are cameras everywhere in most major cities. In department stores, on buses and trains, in housing developments, on bridges at toll booths. In Great Britain, it is estimated you can find yourself on camera more than 300 times a day on one of 4.2 million cameras. New York City is slowly becoming similarly monitored. Other cities are following suit.
With this increasing surveillance state, people are becoming a bit more aware of what is possible in terms of physical surveillance. The net, however, grows tighter. These networks of surveillance will soon have an added layer, connecting the networks of cameras with the network of the Internet.
This amalgamated network is called the Internet of Things. We’ll call it ‘IoT’ for short. The Internet of Things is a concept being implemented where all of our technology will be chipped and able to connect to the internet, sharing its connectivity and accessibility to devices we use such as our computers and smartphones.
Yes, it is being promoted as a benefit to you, as in many Comcast commercials where they show the clients being able to check the cameras in their home, lock the doors and windows and activate the alarm systems even while they’re not at home.
Here’s the rub: The same connectivity which allows you to control your smart IoT devices, can allow for others with the right proprietary software, the ability to do the very same things to you.
Vendors have already begun chipping smart televisions with the ability to call home, returning your video habits to the company, who will likely sell them to advertisers seeking an advantage in learning your channel watching habits. One tech in Britain, DoctorBeet, discovered his SmartTV was recording his viewing habits and even when he thought he had disabled the function, the television continued to transmit his channel data to their offices.
Smart cars are tracking your movements monitoring your mileage under the auspices of helping you know how much wear and tear your car may be be exposed to and ultimately to help you improve your driving experience. However, smart technologies are also making it possible for cars to be shut down remotely if a person owning them hasn’t paid their bill on time.(See: Finance company shuts down vehicles too soon, lawsuit alleges)
This double-edged aspect of the IoT has many facets people are simply not being informed of, now or in the future. It is estimated by the year 2020, there may be up to 30 billion devices connected to the internet, each embedded with smart technologies, putting you online, whether you like it or not.
Imagine: You buy a smart watch with bio-metric health monitoring capacities. Today, that device may only be able to keep track of your heart-rate and body temperature. You will wear the device and think what a great asset it is in helping you managed your running schedule and to see how well your cardiovascular activity is improving.
Fast forward five years, when the pace of technology has the upgrades to that watch monitoring your blood pressure, your blood glucose, toxins in your bloodstream from smoking, perhaps. Maybe it will be able to monitor your alcohol level. Now, your smart-watch and smart-car may not allow you to drive if your blood alcohol is detected to be above a certain value. What if your insurance agency says to you, we will offer you a better rate if your smart device tells us you are living within a particular set of established guidelines.
Great, you may become healthier as a result. Or, said agency might also choose to cancel your policy if they determine you had a cigarette or two after you promised you would quit. Or they might decide you drink alcohol to often or don’t have a diet conducive to good health. This slow encroachment on your private space will not stop with your personal health.
Your smart-car is already able to track your every movement. Perhaps in the future, you will be able to download that information and know just how fast you were driving, where you were driving to and how long you stayed anywhere. Perhaps this data is even available to your boss? Going to be sick? Better stay home because taking a sick day when your car says you went to the golf course will be a thing of the past.
And in case you thought riding with your friend might help you, you would have to leave behind any smart technology you possess because on the Internet of Things, every device you carry is potentially location-aware, and likely able to report your movement to whomever wants to know where you are and has the clearance to ask. I suspect the workforce of the future will be “tethered” in such a fashion if they use workplace provided equipment working offsite.
The Internet of Things will allow technology to gather a body of information about your habits unlike anything ever considered before. These profiles will be in the public domain able to be utilized without your permission to further target you for specialized media. Or monitoring by unscrupulous corporations who might want such information about your purchases to decide if you are a good fit for their company, in the same fashion credit scores are used today. Your “data profile score” may one day determine if you can attend a particular school, work for a particular firm or shop at a particular store.
The real horror of the IoT is eventually, you won’t be able to log out of it. Your computer you have some degree of control over, but your smart devices may not offer you such control. Eventually you won’t be able to “opt out” as firms grow richer selling the information of billions of people. What goes for unscrupulous firms goes double for invasive government. Privacy laws won’t be able to protect you because so much of your data is in the public already.
Yes, imagine it. Welcome to a world where everything you do is collected, stored, analyzed, and, more often than not, packaged and sold to strangers — including government agencies. Despite the apparent coolness of the technology, there are no contingencies for the invasive nature of such technology.
Police knock on your door and demand to be let in. They don’t have a warrant. You are not obligated to let them in. However in a smart future, they may have enough IT equipment to let them activate your computer or television camera and look around your house without you being aware of it. You won’t be able to stop them and current laws may be lax enough to allow them to do this without your knowledge.
What about your shopping habits? Technology has been developed to track your phone by its Bluetooth signature to give stores better opportunities to know your shopping habits and offer you better more focused choices. This allows stores to compete with online service such as Amazon or Ebay. However, it can also lead to digital redlining. (See: Findings of the Big Data and Privacy Working Group Review)
As the ACLU reports:
“Not so surprisingly, however, such handy technology has already led to discriminatory behavior by retailers. About a year ago, an investigation by the Wall Street Journal found that prices quoted by online retailers like Staples and Home Depot changed based on who the customer was. People who lived in higher-income areas generally received the best deals, which is a form of digital redlining. In the future, count on brick and mortar stores to do the same thing by identifying your phone, picking up data about you, and pricing items according to just how juicy a customer they think you may be.”
This, unfortunately, is just the tip of a very large advertising, security and privacy iceberg where hundreds of billions of dollars stand to be made by exploiting the information gathered by the Internet of Things ensuring your weaknesses can be exploited by whatever agency has purchased your data.
I’m going to close with a warning from the ACLU’s article on this subject:
“There’s simply no way to forecast how these immense powers — disproportionately accumulating in the hands of corporations seeking financial advantage and governments craving ever more control — will be used. Chances are Big Data and the Internet of Things will make it harder for us to control our own lives, as we grow increasingly transparent to powerful corporations and government institutions that are becoming more opaque to us.”
Is the future of the IoT in direct conflict with personal privacy? It certainly looks that way. We will have to make decisions, as a society, to determine what information our technology has knows about us and who can gain access to it. There are no Martians here. No microbes that will save us. Only we can make decisions about this encroaching invasion of privacy.
Now, while we still can.
If you’re interested in knowing more, check out these references:
“Internet of Things.” Wikipedia.org. N.p. Web. 27 Oct. 2014. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_of_Things/>
“Invasion of the Data Snatchers: Big Data and the Internet of Things Means the Surveillance of Everything.” Aclu.org. N.p. Web. 27 Oct. 2014. <https://www.aclu.org/blog/technology-and-liberty-free-speech-national-security/invasion-data-snatchers-big-data-and>
Carroll, Rory. “Google buys Nest Labs for $3.2bn in bid for smart home-devices market.” Theguardian.com. N.p. Web. 27 Oct. 2014. <http://www.theguardian.com/>
“Tomgram: Crump and Harwood, The Net Closes Around Us.” Tomdispatch.com. N.p. Web. 27 Oct. 2014. <http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/175822/>
“Brainstorm: Racism Growing, Ebola Spreading and Privacy Shrinking (with images, tweets) · ebonstorm · Storify.” Storify.com. N.p. Web. 27 Oct. 2014. <https://storify.com/ebonstorm/racism-ebola>
“Findings of the Big Data and Privacy Working Group Review.” Whitehouse.gov. N.p. Web. 27 Oct. 2014. <http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2014/05/01/findings-big-data-and-privacy-working-group-review>