When George Orwell's novel '1984' was published in 1948, one of its most futuristic ideas was the 'Telescreen'. This large television spewed out propaganda while monitoring the owner by recording their conversations. In the forties, the idea of a television set that watched and listened to you must have seemed very far-fetched, but with the recent furore about Samsung's smart TVs recording conversations, 'Telescreens' are now clearly part of the mainstream.
Nightmarish dystopian visions of the future have always relied heavily on state surveillance and control. But interestingly, the same has been true of many utopian visions. Sir Thomas More's 'Utopia' itself features a high degree of state control, with private gatherings banned and people continually redistributed to keep communities an ideal size. For good or ill, it seems that somebody always wants to know what you're up to.
Clearly the respective governments of 1984's Airstrip One and Utopia could do pretty much what they liked, but we live in a world where privacy and data protection issues are taken very seriously. That's one reason why the recent revelations about Samsung's smart TVs listening to conversations got so much media coverage. But that sort of issue is only the opening salvo in a battle that is going to run and run, because as the Internet of Things grows so does the need to share ever greater amounts of data to make those things work efficiently. Ultimately, all of these connected things will join up to create data hungry smart cities and, with governments around the world planning these cities right now, there needs to be a realistic debate about how far we, as a society, are prepared to allow access to our data in return for services.
The smart TV debate is a good place to start. Samsung clearly believes that it is providing a useful and worthwhile service, not to mention one that will help to sell more TVs. In order to provide that service it needs to capture data - in this case audio recordings of commands spoken by the operator. So far so good, but the problems arise because not only commands are captured but general conversations that are within earshot. Effectively, the TV listens in case a command is given. Those conversations are analysed for command words by a third party company, which is another element that users feel uncomfortable about. The greatest fear around these TVs is that recorded conversations will be hacked and sensitive information used against the TV owner. That could happen, but in my experience conversations in front of the TV are more likely to be about what's just happened in EastEnders than internet banking passwords. In any case the voice command facility can be turned off at the flick of a switch. My question is: how bothered are we, really?
While Samsung has an absolute responsibility to make sure that its service is as secure as possible, I can't help thinking that scares like this detract from the debate we should be having. That's about which data really matters, how much data we are prepared to give away and what we want in return for it. Treating every single piece of data as precious or secret is counterproductive. Does it really matter if Big Brother knows that you have run a hot bath, for example, if that data will help to lower your fuel bills?
In the future not all of us will want to live in a smart city, but for many of us benefits like intelligent transport systems, efficient buildings energy saving smart grids will outweigh the negatives. Unless we, and our governments, start thinking and talking realistically about data those benefits could remain just a Utopian dream.