The Creepy New Wave of the Internet

Here’s a very interesting article drawing on recent literature about the “internet of things”. This term references the spread of internet connectivity to household and other devices. Internet-enabled devices will be able to learn your needs and behaviors and accommodate them in advance. They will also surround you with interconnected sensors that keep data on everything you do and record it… somewhere.

Slightly chilling quote here:

Connecting everyone and everything in a neural network brings the human race out of the age of privacy, a defining characteristic of modernity, and into the era of transparency. While privacy has long been considered a fundamental right, it has never been an inherent right.
Indeed, for all of human history, until the modern era, life was lived more or less publicly…. In virtually every society that we know of before the modern era, people bathed together in public, often urinated and defecated in public, ate at communal tables, frequently engaged in sexual intimacy in public, and slept huddled together en masse. It wasn’t until the early capitalist era that people began to retreat behind locked doors.

I think its wrong to say privacy is just a passing fad of early capitalism. Kings and popes had privacy long before capitalism came along. Perhaps capitalism was the midwife for more universal privacy, but privacy itself is a fundamental aspect of self-mastery and agency and there’s great risk in dismissing it as a passing quirk of one economic system.

Also, the ‘transparency’ of the internet of things seems to be asymmetric, unless the holders of all this data plan to make themselves as transparent as the people they are collecting data on. People will have both more and less power over their lives when devices do what they want, but the data they collect is going to large entities (or hackers) without any curbs.

At any rate the clash between privacy and technology has barely begun. And the implications are enormous - for capitalism, for automation, for public health - and the ritual promises of freedom from work and opportunity to do more fulfilling things are coming back again. How can we make that promise stick this time? And should user control of data be something we push for more strongly as the internet of things rolls out?

Hey MarkG,

I recently worked a few months at an “Internet of Things” start-up, in the role of Software Architect/Manager.
As a result, I spent an inordinate amount of time thinking deeply about user interaction models, security, privacy, concepts of ownership of things vs. data about things and so on.

I agree that trends away from privacy and assumptions about that trend being as return to norm are a bad thing.
To some extent, people write such things because it grabs attention to their writing to be sensationalist like that.
However, there is also some potential truth in it.
Badly thought-out implementations will violate everyone’s privacy either directly as a part of their business model, or indirectly as leaks, hacks or via subpoenas.

In our case, we started from the premise that privacy and property are related, but in complex ways.
Owning property means I have rights to that property.
There are no laws saying this next bit, but we followed from there to say that I therefore also have rights to data collected on or about that property.
If I subsequently sell that property, then the data rights from that time on, transfer with it.
If I lease or rent that property to a tenant, then such contracts need to start dealing with the dissemination of data rights that happen with it. Some might stay with an original building owner (maybe about plant equipment monitoring for example). Other data like temperature/humidity may be shared by a building owner and tenants (in a business building context), while other data like occupancy may be strictly private to the tenant only.
It gets complex quite quickly and there is a lot more to it than I can quickly explain here.

The law has seriously not caught up with this space.
I don’t worry that “the evil corporations will violate our privacy”, so much as I worry that the bulk of the population will just blunder blindly into agreements based on business models that are cheap, convenient and almost never violate your privacy in a massively overt way, right up until they do, because you are not really the customer; you are the product.
I think it will be like Facebook all over again.

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