5 Reasons Why the Battle for Online Privacy Will be Lost

An admittedly gloomy take on the privacy debate . .

A version of this article also appears at the venerable Computerworld.com 

  1. The path of least resistance
    “Address please?” This two word phrase is fast becoming the de facto response from sales people the world over when buying products in person. At first you were probably taken aback and asked “why?” The counter arguments lobbed your way are well-rehearsed: “might need to contact you if the concert is cancelled”; “it’s for emergencies” and the oddly reassuring yet brazenly honest, “it’s for marketing”. Over time my will to resist has wilted. At a well-known London theatre recently I turned up in person and paid cash for tickets. When the inevitable questions came and I was asked to divulge my personal details I pondered the arguments for arguing, briefly considered lying, felt sorry for the person in the kiosk whose job it was to extract the information and promptly sang like a canary. Am I a spineless coward? Possibly, but do you always want to be that person holding up the queue and bellowing forth a discourse on the right to privacy while demanding to see the manager? I crave an easy life. It’s not that I don’t trust the Old Vic to look after my details – I’m sure their IT security is impeccable and I’ll probably enjoy whatever they send me in the post – but at some point in the future the current owners of the business might just sell up to new proprietors with a far less healthy attitude to data protection . . . which leads me to . . .
  1. The value of data
    It’s probably happened online and on a small scale already but allow me to make a confident albeit not very brave prediction: within a decade or so a multi-million dollar business deal will conclude and a reasonably well-known concern – it could be an insurance company, a restaurant franchise or a gym – will change hands and the majority of the price paid will not be for the bricks and mortar and assorted other physical assets but instead will be for the micro-SD card holding the vendor’s customer data. Those people who used to run postal catalogue services back in the seventies made tiny profits selling chocolate fondue sets but got very rich selling their customer lists. They and their modern day counterparts, the price comparison sites, understand this concept very well: in the long run your name and address are worth more than a Nautilus Stairmaster. Much more.
  1. The pervasiveness of technology
    Ford executive Jim Farley got a red face recently when in an unguarded moment he let slip that thanks to GPS devices in their vehicles his company knew “what you’re doing…and when you’re doing it”. The hapless VP soon rolled back on what he’d said and personally I’m prepared to give Ford the benefit of the doubt on this. However, the point is not that a corporation is storing my journey data as a matter of course but that the ability to do so is merely mouse clicks away. Those with long memories will remember the FBI’s attempt to snoop via GM’s OnStar system [http://www.securityfocus.com/news/7491]. It was snuffed out via court action but my what a precedent. Just disable the GPS I hear you cry! Thanks, it had occurred to me, but in the back of my mind do I really, really believe that checking a box on the dashboard screen means it’s off and off for good? Short of ripping the box out of the bodywork and thereby invalidating your warranties that GPS is ensconced like a tiny Jason Bourne in sleeper mode just waiting one day to be remotely activated or worse, hacked into and turned to the dark side. Cheap sensors and ubiquitous Wi-Fi mean the so-called ‘internet of things’ will soon take off. [http://www.mobileinc.co.uk/2010/03/introducing-the-twettle-project-the-kettle-that-tweets/ ] and when that happens it won’t just be your car that acts as a giant tracker but your kettle, your TV and very likely your clothes. Believe it or not we are closing in on the day when your hair can be hacked [http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-25099262 ].
  1. The stunting of development
    A few years ago some enterprising developers hit on a cool new iPhone feature which they embedded into their app. It let you take a photo using the volume button. Users loved it but Apple didn’t and the app was yanked from iTunes. Compare this to the world of personal computing with its relatively open architecture and highly transparent software market. If you’ve a mind to turn your PC into a web-server, router or a fancy coffee-vending machine go right ahead. And if you don’t like the operating system it runs choose another or better yet write your own from scratch, that’s what Linus Torvalds the creator of Linux did. Internet guru Jonathan Zittrain refers to the PC’s flexible eco-system as “generative”. This is a reflection of the industry’s hobbyist origins and it’s this generative quality which has been responsible to date for some of the greatest advances in computing. If Sergey Brin had had only an iPad to play around with there would be no Google today. Sadly the writing is on the wall for the venerable PC. The sales graph for 2013 resembled a ski slope – a black – with a steep fall of 10%. One research group called it the “worst decline ever”. Meanwhile it’s boomtime for tablets and other mobile devices. Extrapolating those trends is a sobering experience. When the tools and skills necessary to innovative while simultaneously building in privacy are themselves becoming scarcer, the writing really is on the wall. I wouldn’t go so far as free software guru Richard Stallman who described Apple products as “jails made cool” – there is much iOS innovation on a daily basis – but the next great technological advances in privacy are unlikely to come from folks who shut you down just because of “non standard” use of a volume knob.
  1. The coming demographic deluge
    Have you recently watched a 12-year-old get a new smartphone? Try it sometime, they’ll have sent their first Snapchat before the cellophane even hits the floor. Not for them the laborious rigamarole of going into settings and turning off location services or disabling automatic logins and password saving. No, they want to use the features and they want ’em now. This isn’t ignorance. Today’s youth are a tech-savvy bunch and know full well the consequences of power-using unhardened devices. Alas the truth is far more prosaic: they’re simply cool with it. The twenty-year-olds of the 2020s will be the first generation to have grown up with extremely smart apps, constant interconnectedness and gaping wide-open defaults. Many of them will hit university without having even seen something as quaintly customisable as a PC. Facebooking a friend on the train while simultaneously updating Foursquare will be as second nature to them as editing your AUTOEXEC.BAT was for those dwindling band of brothers who can remember Windows 3.11. Fast forward a couple more decades and the angsty teen you see today thumbing her phone under the bed covers with Black Veil Brides pounding out of the speakers will be CEO of the next Buzzfeed. Her peers and colleagues will all possess the same mindset: sharing is good. Meanwhile we oldies worrying about big government snooping will be reduced over time to an ever dwindling demographic. You’ll still be able to spot us of course, look for the grey-haired moaners, hobbling along to their evening ACLU meetings making rude signs to the CCTV on every street corner. But between today’s privacy campaigners and the tweens, who do you think Mark Zuckerberg gets all misty-eyed about when planning his product road maps? Didn’t someone once say being ignored was far worse than being hated? The technology of tomorrow is being tailored towards those who are comfortable with its ethos of openness. Users and manufacturers are bouncing ideas off each other in a mutually beneficial circle all the while innovating away from privacy. Those creatives who don’t want to participate will find their customer base shrinking or, like Ed Snowden’s e-Mail provider Lavabit, they’ll find themselves on the wrong end of government pressure and simply decide it’s easier to fold. How long till the only messaging services left in the world are Gmail and its Chinese equivalent? Do not feel smug: if you’re reading this and you’re over 25 I’m afraid you’re already approaching irrelevance.

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