When Privacy Dies

Photo by Verne Ho on Unsplash

I feel for our children. They are growing up in a world where everything is connected, viewable, shared. They obsess over their image, worry about their following, who likes their posts. They suffer cyber bullying, and are exposed to the entire collective consciousness and memory of mankind all at once through their phone. They are no longer drip fed access to adulthood year by year, and instead see at one moment all the horror, brute reality, fantasy and conspiracy, all of history and all of now, all at once regardless of whether they are ready or able to process it. They lost the filters of youth and innocence as the adults around them dumped the contents of their minds onto the web, and gave them a tablet as a window into the darkest corners of their psyche.

But beyond what they can understand yet is that as they become adults, they will be the first generation whose entire life will become a searchable digital profile. Everything they do now is recorded. Not just the things they know are recorded, but information from security cameras to school reports, photos of them at a nightclub, CCTV of them buying alcohol under aged, their Internet search history, their likes, and their social graphs. While this information isn’t yet all searchable, and may for now be private, it exists, and will do forever, in a way that our society now is entirely unprepared to understand.

What we should really fear is when quantum computers have the power to search everything from all of digital time, and be able to crack encryption. Suddenly all the doors could fly open. There will come a moment when a future version of Google can search for every image with your face in it. Not just photos on Facebook, but images in videos, from security cameras, from the background of other people’s holiday videos, photos of you in a crowd, marching in a rally. What happens when the opinionated teenagers of today run for political office in 20 years, and the future internet pulls up images of them as teenagers, at the back of a room listening to a speaker who went on to become unsavoury, or fall out of favour. A generation back you could make mistakes, do the stupid things teenagers do, and let it be buried by time. That is over.

A future when everything goes public will be like all the scandals of today combined into one huge social meltdown. You cannot conceptualise what a database of every image and video ever taken that has your face in is like; when the same quantum computing power means all of those images can be correlated into a map of every place you’ve been to, every person you’ve met. This digital profile will be able to say where you were at most given moments in your past; it will be able to break your alibies, sell your secrets, cross check your statements and stories. Not only will you have no privacy in the future, any privacy you thought you had in the past will vanish.

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Of course, you’d argue, this won’t actually happen because most of that data is private, is secure. We have checks and balances in our societies to protect us from Big Brother. But that is now. Western societies are the main advocates of people having rights, privacy, and control over what Government and Corporations can know about us, and do with our data. This ideology mainly developed amongst the post-War institutions and societies as a reaction to age of Dictatorship, creating rules and treaties to protect the freedoms for which the War was fought. But these are the societies in which the new populist Right are arguing for less government, less regulation, for more ‘freedom.’ What they don’t realise is that they are advocating for a future in which more data will be owned, and sold, and there will be less regulation to stop a future with no privacy at all.

Aside from this shift within Western democracies, it is likely that the bigger pattern we can’t see from where we stand is that the West is in decline, and the future belongs to countries like China.

In China, the government already has a strangle-hold over the technology people use to engage with each other and the society around them, allowing the terrifying proposal that their citizens will be given ‘social credits,’ based on their chats, purchases, and digital footprint, in a system to be rolled out by 2020. Combine this with an unregulated, unfettered use of surveillance technology and the world’s largest facial recognition system and the Chinese people already live in a dystopian futuristic country where the State can see where they are, who they are with, know what they are saying, and then use that against them. Dissent becomes impossible. It is as close as we can get to having Thought Police.

Photo by Ben Koorengevel on Unsplash

The Trumps and Farages of this world are trying to dismantle the political unions that help regulate such technologies, and are likely sowing the seeds of our future economic decline through their isolationist policies. Meanwhile countries like China are on the ascendant. It only needs a tipping of the balance of power for a Chinese version of the tech future to wash over our societies and swallow up all of our data.

And that is just the regulation. The future will also see more cyber attacks, more weaponisation of information and connectivity. Imagine a future where your shadow profile at Facebook, which connects you with anyone else on Facebook who ever saved your name, phone number, or email in their phone; where police CCTV cameras, your Gmail accounts, and search history are all hacked, and that data is sold, or shared with other governments. Combine that with a technology that can hyper-search data, and algorithms that can combine with quantum computing power to connect everything. Suddenly someone, a government, a crime gang, an army, will have a map of your entire past, able to find memories even you’ve forgotten.

Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

That is the future. It is a future where the children of today will have no privacy. Everything they do from their first steps will be recorded and associated with them forever. At least they can plan for this, and will change how they behave to cope with a life without privacy.

What about today’s adults? What about all the things our generation did back when we didn’t know about search engines? All the stupid shit we did, all the early data we created, shared on Orkut and Myspace, or those early grainy photos we dumped onto Flickr and forgot about. This generation were behaving with what our children would now see as reckless abandon, because we didn’t yet know that in the future there would be computers that could search back to the beginning of the digital age, find everything, and connect it all together.

As we get older, as computers get dramatically more powerful, as the Right erode the regulation that is struggling to protect us, and countries like China becomes the dominant power, society is heading towards a massive car crash when suddenly every byte of data ever created about us gets hacked, shared, becomes searchable, and falls into the hands of dictatorships or criminals.

Maybe that moment will be when the dictatorships overrun the democracies, as they suffer a huge societal collapse. The political leaders will all be engulfed by scandals, as everything they ever did becomes searchable. Trust will fail, relationships will fall apart, swathes of people will lose their jobs, as an unprepared society struggles to respond to a sudden release of everything, to the end of privacy.

This crash, in which government, society, and economy are all decimated, may be the opening for the already strong dictatorships to step in and take over. They will already exist in a world with no privacy, and will have weaponised information so that they can use such a huge data dump against us. And in their own societies people will already have worked out how to live alongside each other and their rulers when privacy no longer exists.

We are completely unprepared as a society for the end of privacy and the mass weaponisation of information, as the last 2 years have shown. We lack the rules, lack the response, and still allow ourselves to be outraged by information easily, often without checking if it’s true.

We simply cannot conceive of what it will mean when the information attacks of the last year look normal, look insignificant, compared to what they foreshadow.

I put it to those arguing against regulation, trying to dismantle our democratic safeguards, who pander to populism by fighting our political unions and International agencies: consider what it would look like if I could access every byte of data relating to you that has ever existed; every bank statement, tax return, every instance your face has been caught on camera. What if I could search everything you’ve ever written, in emails, documents, private memos.

Trump doesn’t want us to see his tax returns. Imagine if we could see them and everything else? That is the world they are pushing for, from dismantling Net Neutrality, to de-regulating industries.

Regulation, strong political unions, and internationalism offer some hope that these things will be protected; they create international Standards, treaties on the use of technologies. Otherwise we are moving into a world where the people creating the future technologies in Artificial Intelligence, genetics, quantum computing, search capabilities, and surveillance, to name but a few areas, will be doing so unencumbered by ethical and democratic controls.

I pity today’s young people. They live in a daunting age increasingly devoid of secrets. But at least they can adapt their behaviour now to protect their future selves. I fear for the old, who behaved in their past as if they were not being watched and recorded, only to find out decades later that they were.

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