Computers

Paul Gilster: National debate over privacy gets personal

CorrespondentDecember 29, 2013 

Wrapping up an entire year in tech is usually a tough challenge for me, but 2013 made it easy.

There is only one issue at play and it reached crescendo levels as the year concluded. Every breakthrough product of the coming year will emerge under its shadow, and manufacturers and consumers alike are going to be putting their future plans within its context. Some thoughts:

• What we have learned about the National Security Agency has defined 2013 and changed the technology landscape going forward. Americans had embraced or at least tolerated an ambiguous process of surveillance as a necessary check against terrorism, but no one knew exactly how far it extended.

Edward Snowden brought an end to that era, forcing a reassessment of who we are and how far we are willing to go in the cause of security. This is a debate that technology would have forced upon us sooner or later, and although I have no brief for Snowden, I am glad that the issues are now fully in play.

For if 2013 was the year of the NSA – and 2014 will surely be as well, given how much we still have to learn – then the reflection of Snowden’s revelations bounces back squarely on our personal tech.

While the national debate over surveillance takes in politics and security, it also illustrates how much of our privacy we compromise on a daily basis. How many apps on your smartphone ask for your location, and how many times do you simply choose “OK”?

It is genuinely Orwellian to find a population armed with devices that can triangulate an individual’s every move, but what goes beyond Orwell is our willingness to to make that information known.

• The challenge to the tech sector is to figure out what is genuinely useful.

We’re too likely to do things just because technology gives us the ability to do them. But location services can be hugely helpful as well – check in with a mapping service and you’ve got a pocket GPS, and sharing photos with family and friends with Instagram is fun. We just have to figure out how much is enough.

Facebook always wants to know where I am and prompts me to cough up ever more data about myself. While I decline, I see that most people don’t. Twitter is awash with tweeted traumas. Not everyone who reads these, the NSA story reminds us, are our friends.

• The product of the year may well be one that hasn’t even shipped yet: the Memoto camera. It’s important for what it tells us about ourselves.

Don’t look for this in a smartphone or in the listings on Amazon for new Digital Single Lens Reflex equipment. The Memoto, which grew out of a privately funded Kickstarter campaign, is a midget “lifelogging” camera that you wear around your neck.

Unobtrusive, it snaps regular photographs through the day and saves them in the cloud. Your every move – from dentist chair to drinks with friends after work – captured and saved. The lesson: We can’t get enough of ourselves. Every single moment must be recorded.

• The debate over who gets to use all this information will be accelerated by Google Glass and the various “smartwatches” we can expect in 2014.

The camera aboard Google Glass can snap photos with a turn of the head, raising privacy questions for the unsuspecting subjects of the pictures, and using some of the slick services foreseen for the device, like pulling down information about the stores and streets around you, will inevitably mean flagging your location to whatever digital snoops may be looking your way.

A smartwatch will use Bluetooth to communicate with your smartphone – now we have to wonder how detectable that signal is.

• 2013 was the setup, the long slide down the ski-jump that will loft us into a 2014 packed with privacy concerns, re-thinking of priorities vs. convenience, and reassessment of how much we are willing to tell total strangers who “like” us because they are our “friends.”

The national debate over surveillance will be paralleled by the debates within families and individual consciences about how much right we have to see into other peoples’ private lives, and how much of our own private life we are willing to put into a medium that is going to outlive us.

Nothing gets lost once it’s committed to the vast networked sprawl of modern tech unless we choose to lose it. And that will require working on our attitudes and tuning up our tools with privacy as priority one.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at gilster@mindspring.com.

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