Future of privacy


Editor’s Note: On Nov. 15, 2012, Western News celebrated its 40th anniversary with a special edition asking 40 Western researchers to share the 40 THINGS WE NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE NEXT 40 YEARS. This is one of those entries. To view the entire anniversary issue, visit the Western News archives.

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You’ve been called in for a second interview for that job you really want.

Excited and nervous, you walk into the room where the interview panel has gathered. But something isn’t right – and when the chair of the panel looks up from her computer, everything becomes clear.

“As you know,” she says, “we conduct background searches on all our applicants – including a careful review of online profiles.”

What’s the problem? That depends.

In 2012, it is likely to be the photos from that wild party you were at last weekend – the ones your friend took and posted to his Facebook page, tagging you and everyone else who attended that never-to-be-forgotten event.

In 2052, it is more likely not having such photos – in fact, not having a rich and varied enough online presence – will be the cause of their concern. Because in a world where surveillance is the norm, and digital archiving and sharing of life events is standard, the absence of those party pictures could mark you as someone antisocial, untrustworthy or potentially, even criminal.

The problem won’t be you shared too much, but rather you shared too little.

What happens to privacy in a world where sharing is not only the norm but a social requirement? The signs have been around for a long time.

In 1999, Scott McNealy, CEO of Sun Microsystems, (in)famously opined: “You have zero privacy anyway… get over it.”

McNealy, and others who came after him, were focused largely on information that is collected, archived and shared solely within the online environment. Today’s ubiquitous technologies, by contrast, are increasingly likely to knit together the online and offline worlds, with mobile devices supporting real-time ‘check-ins’ that disclose your current location, surveillance cameras monitoring an ever-increasing number of street corners, and radio-frequency identification the size of a grain of sand that uniquely identify many of the objects you carry. The privacy implications of these technologies are even more significant.

We have yet to reach the world of Minority Report (admittedly, set in 2054) in which even our inner thoughts and indeed our futures are subject to surveillance, but there is no doubt technology is headed that way.

Software developers are even now working on ‘emotion recognition software’ that can identify how you feel and serve up ads appropriately; it is not unimaginable we will eventually be able to use fMRI for brain ‘surveillance’ of thoughts, intentions and beliefs.

Every step of the way, we are presented with technologies that make our lives easier, safer, more interesting and more fun. And each technology invites us to share more of our thoughts, our actions, our intentions … ourselves.

The march of technology is inevitable – the only question is how we, as individuals and as a society, will choose to control it.

So, what happens to privacy? If we follow the road we’re on, the answer is clear. As Steven Rambam, a private investigator, pronounced in 2008, “Privacy is dead.”

But right now, it is on life support and your finger is on the switch. You decide.

Jacquelyn Burkell is a professor in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies, who is also associated with Western’s Rotman Institute of Philosophy.