When Mark Zuckerberg posted a picture of himself on Facebook in June, a sharp-eyed observer spotted a piece of tape covering his laptop’s camera. The irony didn’t go unnoticed: A man whose $350 billion company relies on users feeding it intimate details about their lives is worried about his own privacy. But Zuckerberg is smart to take precautions.
Even those of us who don’t control large corporations have reason to worry about surveillance, both licit and illicit. Here’s how governments, terrorists, corporations, identity thieves, spammers and personal enemies could observe us in the future, and how we might respond.
1. Cameras Will Be Invisible
Many of the cameras that can be pointed at us today are easy to spot. But researchers are developing recording devices that can hide in plain sight, some by mimicking animals.
A company called AeroVironment has produced a drone that looks and flies like a hummingbird. Engineers at Carnegie Mellon, NASA and elsewhere have designed “snakebots” that can maneuver in tight spaces and could be adapted for surveillance.
Robotic bugs are in development, too, and engineers at UC Berkeley and in Singapore are developing cyborg beetles—real insects that can be remote-controlled via implanted electrodes and that might someday pack cameras.
If even an insect is too obvious, Kristofer Pister, an engineer at Berkeley, and David Blaauw, an engineer at the University of Michigan, are developing “smart dust” and “micro motes,” respectively: tiny computers mere millimeters wide that can be equipped with cameras and other sensors. One can (or can’t, as it were) see where this is going.
2. Your Past Will Be Omnipresent
Imagine this: You walk into a car showroom and before you say anything, the dealer knows your name, employment status, car-buying history and credit rating. Such a future isn’t far off, says Christopher Soghoian, the principal technologist at ACLU.
Already, data brokers such as Acxiom and LexisNexis compile reams of information on all of us. Clients can purchase a dossier on your criminal, consumer and marital past. Soghoian thinks it’s only a matter of time before data brokers begin drawing from online-dating profiles and social-media posts as well.
Right now, clients have to log in and search for people by name or buy lists of people with certain traits. But as facial-recognition technology becomes more widespread, Soghoian says, any device with a camera and the right software could automatically pull up your information.
Eventually, someone might be able to point a phone at you (or look at you through smart contact lenses) and see a bubble over your head marking you as unemployed or recently divorced. We’ll no longer be able to separate our personae—our work selves from our weekend selves. Instead, our histories will come bundled as a pop-up on strangers’ screens.
3. We’ll Let Spies In
This January, a spate of news articles reported a search engine called Shodan allows online voyeurs to browse password-unprotected baby monitors and watch strangers’ children sleeping in their cribs. This shouldn’t have come as a surprise: Unsecured webcams of all sorts are findable through various search engines, including Google.
Still, the news was a reminder of how easy it is to spy on people through the gadgets in their homes—a problem likely to grow as more devices are connected to the internet.
With the advent of the internet of things, appliances and gadgets will monitor many aspects of our lives, from what we eat to what we flush. Devices we talk to will record and upload our conversations, as Amazon’s Echo already does. Even toys will make us vulnerable. Kids say the darndest things, and the talking Hello Barbie doll sends those things wirelessly to a third-party server, where they are analyzed by speech-recognition software and shared with vendors.
Even our thoughts could become hackable. The technology company Retinad can use the sensors on virtual-reality headsets to track users’ engagement. Future devices might integrate EEG electrodes to measure brain waves. In August, Berkeley engineers announced they had produced “neural dust,” implantable electrodes just a millimeter wide that can record brain activity for scientific or medical purposes.
Then again, you don’t need brain implants to have your mind read. “Google knows more about me than my wife does,” says Bruce Schneier, a computer-security expert at IBM. “No one ever lies to a search engine. It’s not a neural implant, but it’s freakishly close.”
4. Machines Will Decide Our Fates
As the data collected by all the devices around us become overwhelming, we’ll increasingly rely on artificial intelligence to sift through them and make decisions, says Gary T. Marx, the author of "Windows Into the Soul: Surveillance and Society in an Age of High Technology."
Algorithms are already used to identify potential terrorists, as well as to generate credit ratings and parole recommendations. Chicago police use an algorithm that analyzes arrest records, social networks and other data to identify future criminals. Soon, bots will likely guide many aspects of personnel management, such as hiring and firing.
Researchers have called the scenario in which humans are removed from the decision loop the “machine-readable world.”
“Basically,” Schneier says, “we’re creating a world-size robot,” a system with sensors, processors, and actuators that can manipulate the world by, say, approving loans or steering cars.
Such automation may increase efficiency, but it won’t eliminate injustice. For one thing, algorithms make mistakes.
“If Facebook gets your profile wrong, they show you an ad for a Chevy you don’t want to buy,” Schneier says. “If the Department of Defense gets your profile wrong, they drop a drone on your house.”
Algorithms also embody the prejudices of their programmers, or generate their own—a point driven home in May when ProPublica exposed how a correctional tool used across the country to inform sentencing decisions overestimates the recidivism rate of black defendants. Maciej Cegłowski, a blogger and programmer, has called machine learning “money laundering for bias.”
5. Society Will Be Safer but Creepier
Studies show security cameras reduce street crime in urban areas, but surveillance also tends to suppress certain types of noncriminal activity, creating a chilling effect on our freedoms. For instance, after Edward Snowden revealed the extent of the National Security Agency’s spying on citizens in 2013, Google searches for terrorism-related terms such as al‑Qaeda dropped, suggesting an inhibition of free inquiry.
Moxie Marlinspike, Twitter’s former head of cybersecurity, has written we should also protect privacy for the sake of illegal activity, so as to allow nonconformity. In the U.S., for example, laws governing marijuana use and gay marriage might not have changed if fear of prosecution had kept people from ever trying pot or forming same-sex relationships. Marlinspike further argues that with constant surveillance, law enforcement will have dirt on everyone, at which point enforcement will become selective, and likely biased. Annoy the wrong person and you’re in trouble.
But along with surveillance comes “sousveillance,” the ability to watch our watchers. David Brin, a scientist and the author of "The Transparent Society," predicts that eventually we’ll solve more crimes and need fewer cops, and also have a lot less police brutality. (Phone cameras have already helped give rise to the Black Lives Matter movement.)
A Big Brother society results not from being watched but from one-way observation, he says. “We don’t want blinded watchdogs. What we want is a choke chain around the watchdog’s neck.”
Perhaps we’ll also see a shifting of social norms. If everyone’s embarrassing behavior is accessible in perpetuity, we may become inured to employees’ college benders and even to senators’ sexts. Will paranoia reduce misbehavior, or will humans be humans and maintain our blithe and blundering ways?
“It’s hard to change our daily habits,” says Jonathan Zittrain, a co-founder of Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. “I don’t know if that’s a reason for optimism, because it means we’re not going to be chilled, or pessimism, because we appear to be resigned to losing our privacy without thinking it through first.”