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A letter from the future warns of the true privacy dystopia

Future-or-PastBy Simon Davies

To understand the value of our rights, it’s important to get a glimpse of what life in the future might be like without them. This is a letter from the future that tells us what life in 2044 might look like – and why we should think carefully about the path we are on.

My dear forebears,

I’m sending this message from your future in the hope that you can learn from some mistakes that our ancestors made in the early 21st century – the period in which you are now living.

As I write this letter it is 2044. In many respects, this is an exciting and beautiful period of human history – the bountiful horizon of information.

Technology feels like a living organism that wraps tightly around us, enveloping every second of our day, everywhere we go.

But for some of us, this is also a deeply distressing world. Technology feels like a living organism that wraps tightly around us, enveloping every second of our day, everywhere we go. It’s not meant to be hostile, just helpful. However there is no space left.

Nothing is simple any more. Almost every item you buy has sensor technology that interfaces with something else. None of us can remember the last time we bought a frying pan or a toaster that wasn’t connected by default into the electronic ecosystem. These sensors are locked through your identity into the mobile spectrum, ensuring that your safety is protected in the event of overheating or misuse. If you manage to switch off this interface for “critical” devices like hot water systems or kitchen ovens, your home insurance protection is eliminated.

If you have children, you are expected to exploit every connection possible. Failing to do so makes you a bad parent. The media remind us of this expectation every day through a litany of horror stories of children who drank out-of-date milk or played with a cat that wasn’t authorised for contact. Health and safety control has become omnipresent. Yes, even perishable food packaging now has sensors that alert you to the use-by date and possible health risks – whether you want the information or not.

We learned that this technology was once called “The Internet of Things”, but it is now so commonplace that it has no name. It’s just a fact of life that interlaces everything.

The most intricate interface involves “high risk” activities such as recreational drugs, drinking, exercise, sports and even some forms of sex. In all such matters there’s a legal obligation to link the items being used directly to the identity of the individual. In many countries you cannot any longer buy a bottle of whisky without its sensor being linked to your identity, and then – through the mobile spectrum – to your personal profile. It transmits the volume left in the bottle, the speed of consumption and a dozen other factors to your profile. If, for example, such items come into prolonged contact with any item registered to a child, authorities may be alerted. Interference with the data is, in some cases, a criminal offence.  

Because driving is generally considered a “high risk” activity, we long ago gave up any idea of the “open road”.

Because driving is generally considered a “high risk” activity, we long ago gave up any idea of the “open road”. There was a time when a person could get into a vehicle and experience freedom. Now every movement – on the road and off – is minutely analysed – and in many cases is linked to your profile of interactions with other high risk activities (such as the whisky bottle). All vehicles – even bicycles – have become surveillance devices that continuously analyse and transmit data. Indeed many common items are manufactured as continuous surveillance devices, including almost all doors and windows, items of clothing, road surfaces and rooftops.

We once imagined that all this communication between people and things – and things and things – could happen anonymously. And there was a brief period when such privacy was actually possible. If you bought a microwave device there was a time when it wasn’t necessary to link its vast output of data to your mobile network or your identity. That idea, however, never really took off. Now the ecosystem knows what you cook, when you cook, how you cook – together with all the dangers and variations in those patterns.

The early 21st century was focused on the danger of “smart grids” controlled by the utility companies, but critics rarely imagined that the real threat wasn’t a grid as much as the fine-lace surveillance of a hundred billion appliances.

For some of us, the most unsettling feature of our life these days is the fact that many people openly publish this information, not just to their own networks, but to the world at large. Full disclosure has become the accepted way to validate your character and integrity.  And full disclosure is also the best way to achieve credibility with potential employers, future friends, insurers, banks, schools and commercial organisations. Indeed for many people, it’s almost impossible now to build social and commercial relationships if they fail to disclose the most intimate details of private life.

There’s a public expectation that everyone from teachers and doctors to investors and even shopkeepers should be fully open about their lives.

Until a few years ago law enforcement and security agencies used to pay lip service to limiting their access to this information. But as the spectrum of data increased, that effort became too much trouble. In any event, the voluntary disclosure of so much information about so many people gave authorities free rein to do as they pleased with the information.

Now the world just accepts that police can see anything they choose to see. After all, parents who expose their children to high risk activities deserve all they get. And there’s a public expectation that everyone from teachers and doctors to investors and even shopkeepers should be fully open about their lives.

People of course don’t know what is being viewed by authorities, only that everything could potentially be seen. We are all on our best behaviour. Interacting with police is now a terrifying prospect for anyone who has acted against the public interest.

It’s not all bad. Wealthy societies are certainly safer and more orderly now, but they have also been pacified. For most people, this feels like a good development. But something is missing, and you sometimes see it expressed publicly. The idea that people could have freedom to do as they please and control what is known about them has disappeared.

I think they used to call this idea “privacy”, but there’s no room for that idea in an era in which we spend our time figuring how to upload more data rather than less. For most people, to think otherwise was a luxury that applied in a different age.

Good luck finding a way forward. Our thoughts are with you.

Your future