Reporting about widespread government surveillance of ordinary citizens helped win the Guardian and the Washington Post a Pulitzer Prize in 2014. But many ordinary citizens themselves have offered a “Ho-hum everybody does it” response to the spying revelations made by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.
The lackadaisical public reaction does not bode well for the future of privacy. And that’s the same conclusion that the Pew Research Center came to in December after canvassing thousands of Internet, technology and privacy experts.
In the near future foreseen by many of those experts, personal information will be public by default. And people who try too hard to keep their personal information private will be considered weird…or possibly even criminal.
Our Own Worst Enemies
Published as part of Pew’s 2014 Internet Project marking the 25th anniversary of the World Wide Web, “The Future of Privacy” reveals a split between experts who believe privacy protections will be better by 2025 — 45 percent of respondents — and those who do not, who carried the majority with 55 percent.
“Despite this very divided verdict, there were a number of common thoughts undergirding many of the answers,” the report noted. “For instance, many of those answering ‘yes’ or ‘no’ shared the opinion that online life is, by nature, quite public.”
Among the other areas in which most respondents agreed: “Privacy and security are foundational issues of the digital world.” We live in a time of unprecedented and ubiquitous surveillance and most of us are our own worst enemies when it comes to protecting our personal information.
The reason behind that last observation is simple: Most people are quick to give up personal information in exchange for personal convenience — that is, to get goods or services more quickly and easily. It’s also the reason why businesses will continue to reap profits from big-data analytics.
Privacy Technology Arms Race
So what do the experts foresee in our privacy future? Here’s what some of them predicted:
“If anything, consumer tracking will increase, and almost all data entered online will be considered ‘fair game’ for purposes of analytics and producing ‘user-driven’ ads,” one information science professional told Pew. “We live in an age where we all feel like rulers to our information, kings and queens of bank accounts, yet we are not; herein lies the problem.”
Homero Gil de Zuniga, director of the Digital Media Research Program at the University of Texas-Austin, predicted: “By 2025, many of the issues, behaviors, and information we consider to be private today will not be so….Information will be even more pervasive, even more liquid, and portable. The digital private sphere, as well as the digital public sphere, will most likely completely overlap.”
Peter Suber, director of the Harvard Open Access Project, said: “We can be sure that privacy technology, like encryption, will continue to improve in ease and power — but so will privacy-penetrating technology. It is an arms race today, and I do not see that changing anytime soon. There will always be smart and motivated people on both sides.”
An attorney at a major law firm envisioned a future with a “Minority Report”-like vibe: “As Google Glass and attendant projects grow, the so-called Internet of Things becomes increasingly aware of literally everything, and as programmers begin jumping on algorithmic schemes to sift, curate, and predict the data, notions of privacy will be considered a fetish. The more data that is captured, the more algorithms will be able to predict, the less privacy we will have, as there will be an assumption that the predictive algorithm is right, and behavior will modify to address actions which have not yet occurred but are likely to a high statistical probability.”
While not everybody expected a future without privacy, the more pessimistic respondents used words like “Panopticon” — a prison designed in the 18th century in which all the inmates could be watched from a single point — or referred to “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” George Orwell’s 1949 novel about a dystopia of all-encompassing government surveillance.
Quoting a colleague, Vytautas Butrimas, Lithuania’s Chief Ministry of Defense adviser for cyber security, noted, “George Orwell may have been an optimist.”
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