Information Consumerism : The Price of Hypocrisy

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Assume, for a moment, that Europe forces all the laws it wants on US technology companies. It’s a very unlikely hypothetical – not with their growing lobbying power in Brussels– but let’s forget this for a moment. What will happen in five years, as all objects and appliances turn “smart” – i.e. they suddenly have a cheap but sophisticated sensor built into them – and become connected to each other and to the Internet? Many such objects are already commercially available and many more will be soon: smart forks that monitor how fast we eat; smart toothbrushes that monitor how often we brush our teeth; smart shoes that tell us when they are about to get worn out; smart umbrellas that go online to check when it will rain and warn us to take them with us on leaving the house. And then, of course, there’s that smartphone dangling in your pocket and – soon – Google Glasses adoring your face.

(Hapilabs presenting a smart fork)

All these objects are capable of generating a data trail. Collect information from several such objects, put it together and – functionally at least– you can generate the same inferences and predictions that NSA generates by watching our email communications or phone records. In other words, NSA can figure out where you are by monitoring your cellphone – or by getting data from your smart shoes or your smart umbrella. Likewise, they don’t have to install a security camera in your kitchen to know what you’ve been eating: they can figure it out by tinkering with the smart toothbrush in your toothbrush or the smart trashbin in your kitchen. If we don’t consider these new listening devices in our legal calculus, there’s little point to build the world’s most secuire email system or a mobile network: NSA will obtain data that allows them to continue their work through other, more creative means.

They might even buy IT on the open market. Some dismiss such concerns, arguing that our email communication feels too private to be sold as if it were just another commodity. True. However, we are perfectly okay with having a Google algorithm scour through our email in order to show us an ad. It’s this customized ad – based on automated on-the-fly analysis and classification – that allows to keep Google’s sophisticated (and rather costly) email system free of charge. Note that it’s this tacit agreement – that Google can use an algorithm to analyze our email communications and sell us the matching adds – that keeps our email communication both free and accessible to the NSA. Google could have easily chosen to encrypt our communications in a way that its own algorithms wouldn’t be able to decipher, depriving both itself and the NSA of much-coveted data. But then Google wouldn’t be able to offer us a free service. And who would be happy about this?

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