Americans once valued privacy. We are likely to give the last away without a second thought. Here's why.
Life in the Goldfish Bowl
Life in the Goldfish Bowl
By Owen Davies, Executive Editor
I have seen the future. It is Sweden. We’ll soon live there without ever leaving home.
This involves a new use of technology, of course, and for once it troubles me. That hasn’t happened since I grew old enough to become aware of nuclear weapons.
Something like 3,000 Swedes have had themselves implanted with microchips, like pets whose owners want to make sure they can be identified if lost. In doing so, they have pushed one of our Social Trends to its logical conclusion. It’s the final decline of privacy.
Like other modern technologies, this one has obvious benefits. In return for carrying something like a grain of rice in the loose skin between thumb and forefinger, chip wearers have gained welcome new conveniences:
Some offices now use locks that open automatically when a chipped employee arrives. No more standing in a 20-below Stockholm winter fumbling with a keycard or punching in an access code.
Go online to buy passage on Sweden’s national railway, and users can store the details in their chips. Conductors then can scan their hands instead of asking for a physical ticket. No one misplaces their chip.
Some vending machines even let chipped customers pay for their purchases with a wave of the hand. It’s like ApplePay without the phone.
Implanted chips promise to do more for us very soon. An Australian company called Chip My Life suggests putting medical records on them so they are available in an emergency. And here in the US, Livestock Labs has developed a chip-based implant that monitors heart rate, blood oxygen, and other factors to give early warning of illness. It is intended for cows, but the inventor tested it on himself first.
It is easy to imagine such chips replacing passports and securing cars and weapons that only their owners can operate. Sign me up! And yet….
Most chip-related warnings deal with fanciful scenarios of what might go wrong. I am more concerned with having them work as intended. Even if you want first responders to have your medical information after an accident, you may prefer that others do not. Insurers and employers come to mind. And information on a chip can be even less private than information online.
This is not an issue in Sweden, where anyone can obtain a citizen’s personal data from the social security system and tax authority. Here in the United States, where privacy once was a defining value, it feels less usual.
At this point, we need to know that there are two kinds of chip. The little ones now replacing keycards must be within about 1.5 inches of the reader to work. RFID chips like the ones in modern passports and that cattle monitor can be read at distances up to 30 feet. Because they are more versatile than smaller chips, we are likely to see more of them implanted in the years ahead.
Information stored in an RFID chip is not like that embarrassing photo you uploaded to Facebook. No one needs your permission to access it. Anyone with the right equipment can read it as you walk past.
Here at TechCast, we have long believed that stores soon will sense people’s phones to identify passers-by, send tailored sales pitches by instant messaging, and note the customers’ presence in the store even if they don’t buy anything. Like today’s Google and Facebook data, those records will be worth good money to marketers. Implanted RFID chips will make this kind of surveillance more efficient and inescapable. At least you can turn phones off.
At this point, Centennial and Millennial readers are smiling indulgently and thinking, “Baby boomers worrying about privacy: That’s so 20th century.”
It’s a fair point. Check out this article by Dylan Curran, who downloaded his data from Google and Facebook. His Google file ran to 5.5GB of personal information. Call it 3 million average Word documents. Privacy isn’t what it once was.
Yet, surveys find that the younger generations, so casual about privacy, are much more lax than their elders about online security. Get Safe Online reported that one in ten British Millennials had fallen for a cyberscam, losing an average of £612 (US$856) each. And that was in 2016 alone.
Worse is possible. “History has shown that powerful, secret surveillance tools will almost certainly be abused for political ends and turned disproportionately on disfavored minorities,” the American Civil Liberties Union points out. In a time when authoritarian government seems ascendant, some may find this newly relevant.
In the name of commerce and convenience, we have casually given up information about ourselves that, had we thought first, we might have kept private. In view of all the internet’s benefits, it may even have been a good trade. Yet, when we consider getting chipped, I hope we think before giving up that last bit of privacy we didn’t imagine we’d miss.
I don’t expect us to. In 10 or 15 years, for better or worse, we will all be Swedish.
For more information on this topic, subscribers can look at our Social Trend “Privacy Dying.” Our Technology Forecast of “E-Commerce” provides a good look at some other technologies now eroding what privacy we still retain.
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