A Brave New Internet

I know many of you have read books like Animal Farm, 1984, and Brave New World. These negative Utopian ideologies are a far cry from the original Utopia.

Utopia was a perfect society that for the author was ideal, but did not exist. It is merely a psycho-politico-social exercise. A perfect world for me is not necessarily a perfect world for you. This is the mental exercise, and where politics begin.

The world of negative Utopian ideology preceded the computer age. The world of 1984 and its predictions are less science fiction than truth. The movie 2001: A Space Odyssey has an AT&T video phone. Today I have my Apple iPhone with FaceTime on the AT&T network. This vision has become a reality. Hopefully, some of the other science fiction from 1984 does not come to pass in the same way as the iPhone. However, I am not so sure about that…

I read an article by Stephen Saunders called Superhighway to Hell in Information Week for the week of June 21st 2010. His vision for the future of the Internet is as dark a Utopian world as may be found in 1984. He proposes two trains of thought: his vision, and the general “cattle-herd” of everyone else. The “cattle-herd”, my quote, mentality of the general populace is a well connected world in which we all come to a universal understanding of humanity. This vision is the one that we often hear quoted. The Internet will bring peace, understanding, and harmony by raising the collective intelligence.

The other vision is far darker in nature. The collection of data which should be liberating could be the same information which binds us. Search engines, social networking sites, and commercial enterprises are collecting data. In some cases, the uses of this data are known. For example, enhance a commercial site by tracking which items are of interest to you.

Google information gathering is not transparent. One example is that they keep a web search history if you have an account with them. This can be very helpful if you are trying to track down a previous search. However, what other information have you provided that they are not sharing with you.

What do these groups do with the “profiles” they have attached to you. Law enforcement, or governments can take this information with subpoena, or force. One does not have guess what they could do with that Information. China has a fine record of tracking down dissidents with this information.

The “identity profiles” that are being collected can tell: interests, social interactions (what you do in public), what you do in private, your financial status, where you shop and what you buy.

The pseudo-science of predictive analysis can use these profiles to determine if something will be of interest to you, and what you will likely buy next. Just think about AdSense, or Amazon’s inclusion of products that others bought with the item you are interested in purchasing; I think you get the picture.

The scary part of “indentity profiling” is that it is legal. You often “opt in” to provide information about yourself: birthday, schools you have attended, storing your address book online, and sharing it between applications.

The end of privacy is at hand. The anonymity of the Internet has passed, and the sunset is upon us. A quote from Star Wars Episode III - “So This is How Liberty Dies…With Thunderous Applause.” may be somewhat apropos here. I propose it is more like “So this is how privacy dies…With an ‘opt in’ for a 20% discount”.

The article covers his vision of a dark future, but my vision is more insidious.

You can watch your house from the Internet. Yes, you can buy a security system from a few vendors (who have ads on T.V.) that will allow you (or someone else) to watch you 24 hours a day. Do you have a cell phone? We can follow you on it. A couple of carriers even tote its benefits like keeping track of the kids. “OnStar we see that your airbag has deployed. We are sending assistance.” The security of those connected devices is mediocre at best. The University of South Carolina has published some work on the lack of security in vehicle automation systems.

Just about every city has traffic cameras, or security cameras. Some are attached to gun shot detectors to gather information, if it detects gun fire. This can be a dual edged sword. If we catch the bad guys, we rest on our laurels. If we create a dragnet where we pull in a number of people, violate their rights, and don’t catch the bad guys, do we a.) admit our inadequacy and seek to improve peoples rights using these systems, or do we b.) say “better luck next time.” I would bet on the latter with Vegas odds. How many public and private cameras are in New York city alone. I have heard it pales in comparison to London. A number of them are web cams, and even the public ones are subject to poor security.

The world of the connected sensor is upon us. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING your COMMUNITY, IDENTITY, STABILITY from the comfort of his telescreen.