Apple and Google are using military-grade spy planes to map your backyard. That's the sensationalist headline. I like it. It's really scary and it's perfect for FUD-mongering. (FUD is an abbreviation for fear, uncertainty and doubt.) Similar headlines have everyone from privacy advocates to private citizens up in arms. After all, the 17th century proverb, "good fences make good neighbors" has no meaning in the age of spy planes. According to some reports, the resolution of the spy cameras is so good that you can see objects as small as 4 inches. Other reports foretell of the capability to see through skylights and open windows -- all kidding aside, it's pretty creepy.
But whether this particular use case creeps you out or not, the creep factor is not the issue. The issue is framed by the question, "Is there any reasonable expectation of privacy in the 21st century?"
I submit that this is the perfect time to start a dialogue about what privacy is, what it is not and what rights we should reasonably expect.
To start this dialogue, we need to understand the full nature of the technological capability we are up against. Apple and Google using military-grade tools to create better way-finding tools for their maps and other applications is actually pretty benign. Want to think about surveillance? Great, let's think about it the right way.
Within a couple of years, file storage will be inexpensive enough and computers will be small and powerful enough to create work environments that are under Star Trek-like audio/video surveillance 24/7. This might mean, for example, that every conversation you have at your job -- no matter where it is and no matter who it is with -- will be recorded and analyzed. The computer programs will be trained to understand what you are saying, syntax, context and to flag anything that is deemed inappropriate or un-business-like. Forget the totally lame "This call is being recorded for quality assurance"; they're going to record everything.
Does this sound Orwellian or paranoid? It may. But unless you assume that the technology is already in place, you can't start thinking about writing rules and laws or even setting guidelines. I promise you, the capability to spy on your every word, movement, email and electronic transaction is already in place -- the only thing that is missing is a cost-effective way to deal with the explosive amounts of data that this type of surveillance generates -- and that capability is easily within sight.
Right now companies asking you to store your music and movies in the cloud are bombarding you. That's a good use of cloud technology, but you know what it's really great for? It's great for big audio/video surveillance files. In fact, it's the best place for them because cloud storage is easily accessed by cloud computers -- and cloud computers have the capacity to crunch extremely large files.
So, now that you are thinking about an invasion of your privacy so deep that it is actually disturbing, what should we do? How should we start to sort out the issue? What are the questions you want to ask? What are the guidelines you will insist upon?
If, under some circumstances, you might be willing to be observed in this way, who should have access to the data? Should anyone be allowed to correlate it to other data, such as medical or financial records?
I've often wondered how much money could be saved (and earned) by simply using EZ-pass data to issue speeding tickets. If the speed limit is 55 mph and you go through two toll booths in less time than it should take you at 55 mph, you are unequivocally guilty of speeding. Why don't they just put a few high-speed EZ-pass lanes on the highway, fire the cops, and send tickets in the mail? It would be easier, cheaper and a much better profit center.
Okay, now, expand this to everything you do. No matter how good your imagination is, no matter how much science fiction you've read, you're going to come up short on the ways this kind of surveillance data can be obtained and used.
So let's take some action. Contact your elected officials and tell them how you feel about privacy. Your privacy. My privacy. Everyone's privacy. What are we as a society willing to give up for the quality of our digital enjoyment? It's "the" question of our time.