In George Orwell's classic dystopian novel, "1984", residents of Oceania are monitored in their own homes with telescreens. The screens record speech and behaviour and can transmit messages from Big Brother.
Dystopian novels excel at this kind of horrific future where the government knows everything about where we are, what we are doing, and with whom, but we are closer to the dystopia than most people realise. Our laws on privacy are built for an era before the Internet and are barely fit for purpose today.
Consider what happened in Brazil this week with the Facebook-owned messaging application WhatsApp. A small-town judge managed to order a national three-day suspension of the service because Facebook failed to comply with a police request to read messages between suspected drug traffickers.
On the surface it seems simple - if Facebook has messages between criminals then of course they should release that data to the police so the villains can be apprehended. But life isn't so simple. WhatsApp is a messaging platform with built-in encryption from the person writing a message to the recipient. Even if Facebook marshals a conversation, they can't read the content because it is encrypted.
Practically the ban on WhatsApp was futile because other encrypted messaging services, such as the Russian app Telegram, can offer the same service. The Brazilian legal authorities acknowledged this by retracting the suspension after only one day.
But this is what worries me. The commentators don't understand that society requires a redefinition of privacy. Are we suggesting that the government should have the ability to monitor every word we utter?
One response to this is that if you have nothing to hide then you have nothing to fear from surveillance. The extent of NSA monitoring revealed by whistle-blower Edward Snowden showed that democratic and supposedly "free" governments do already attempt to monitor us. The scale of monitoring required is vast, but the technology is catching up.
There are two technological changes that are taking place at present that I believe will fundamentally change our approach to privacy:
- Wearable and implanted technology; we think of our relationship with computers today as mainly being via the smart phone or laptop and text as the main way to communicate with the device. However tools such as Apple Siri and Amazon Echo are showing that voice will soon be the main way we communicate with devices - just like in Star Trek.
- Quantum Computing; IBM has already made a quantum computer available to the public. As quantum technology advances we will see computers that are immeasurably faster than what we know at present, with the ability to scan vast amounts of data exploring patterns and connections.
These two shifts create a perfect storm for privacy. Private corporations and governments will have the ability to monitor any activity on any communication channel, no matter how many millions of updates take place each day. In addition our devices will be capturing, recording, and transmitting our location, every word, and potentially every thought. Why does it matter?
Half a million British motorists now voluntarily give real-time data on their location and driving behaviour to their vehicle insurance company in return for a better price on their policy. What happens when all insurance companies decide this information is mandatory? What happens when your health insurance company, or even your local GP, refuse to admit you as a patient unless you supply data 24/7 from a health monitor? What happens when your new employer insists on tracking your location and health status? Can you afford to refuse the job or will you just sign the contract and accept these terms hoping they don't notice that you like to indulge in ecstasy once or twice a month?
If you have a portable device similar to Google Glass capturing every word you say and a device similar to Amazon Echo inside your home then the potential for everything you ever say to be recorded, transmitted, and analysed exists.
Will babies soon receive a health implant at birth? If so, who owns the data? Can individuals retain any control over our own privacy or will it be lost to governments and vast communication networks?
The general misunderstanding about WhatsApp in Brazil is just step one on this journey. The legislators and talking heads are all looking back to a John le Carré world where surveillance meant phone taps. Facebook is obviously looking to the future and assuming that the public will give away all this information about their lives voluntarily.
In a world where our location, words, actions, and thoughts are recorded, who will control what remains private and what is open to be used and monitored? As many thinkers, from Alexis de Tocqueville to John Stuart Mill, often asked: "who protects the public from themselves?"