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Why We Should Care More About Who's Watching

By Jeff Kagan
Sep 7, 2017 2:35 PM PT
privacy-loss-technology

George Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1949. When the year 1984 rolled around, Rockwell's haunting song, Somebody's Watching Me, featuring Michael Jackson and Jermaine Jackson singing in the background, made its debut and went on to become a classic.

Fast-forward to 2017. Today we are living the creepy life Orwell and Rockwell imagined, with technology increasingly intruding on our privacy. Technology has changed our lives forever, both for the better and worse.

We love our iPhones and Android smartphones. We love what Amazon's Echo and Google's Home do for us with their artificial intelligence software, Alexa and Assistant.

Few are complaining about the loss of privacy now -- there's little discussion of it. Yet when loss of privacy was a feature of an imaginary future, many were creeped out by it. Why is it easier to accept as reality today than it was as fiction decades ago?

Perhaps incrementalism is the answer to that question. If the whole world were to change instantly, we would feel very uncomfortable and rebel. However, when it happens bit by bit, over time, we don't seem to pay attention. New technology is invented, users love it -- then bit by bit, year after year, we get used to one level of acceptance and then move to the next.

Loss of Privacy Through Incrementalism

It's sort of like the boiling frog parable. If you were to drop a frog in a pot of boiling water, it would jump out, right? If you put the frog in a pot of warm water and turned up the heat bit by bit, however, the frog wouldn't notice the gradual changes and would stay in the pot until it boiled to death. Though it's based on a false premise, the boiling frog story is a popular metaphor for people ignoring threats that quietly appear and gradually become more dangerous.

Metaphorically, have we become the frog? Are we sitting in a pot of warm water as the temperature is turned up, bit by bit, year after year? It seems fair to say that is what's been happening with our loss of privacy. What will happen next? That's the big question. The answer may not be as harmless or tidy as those found in novels or songs.

Several decades ago, when the first ATM cards were introduced, they were foreign to a population used to in-person banking. No one liked them.

When traffic cameras started to appear at intersections, many drivers were creeped out by the thought that someone in the government could always be watching.

Over time, these new technologies became an accepted part of life.

The digital world brought huge changes. When the world was mostly analog, our privacy was mostly intact. However, during the last few decades, it seems that digital technology has enabled companies and governments to track everything we do, every minute of the day.

Over time, we've been learning to accept every invasion of privacy, step by step.

Someone knows about every TV show we watch, every place we drive in our car, and every phone call we make, either wire line or wireless.

Since we always have our smartphones in our pocket, we're easier than ever to track, everywhere we go. Someone knows about every site we visit on the Internet, and every email and text message we send. Everything is trackable, and it's only getting worse.

AI and IoT

Everyone who lives in a technological society is tracked, like it or not. What's interesting is who cares.

Currently, the only ones who seem to care are people over 30. They grew up with privacy. They recognize the loss of privacy, and they don't like it.

Younger people don't seem to care. The reason is simple: They never had any privacy, so they don't feel they are losing anything. That right there is the rub.

Time plays an important role in the transformation of our society. Our need for privacy is a perfect example. Bit by bit, we are losing what many cherish and hold dear -- personal privacy.

It's only a matter of time before the transformation will be complete. Those of us who are concerned with loss of privacy will age and eventually fade away. The number of people who are less concerned -- or not at all concerned -- is growing. Unless they experience an awakening to the need to protect privacy, even this conversation about its loss will become irrelevant.

Our rush to embrace new technologies like artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, virtual reality and more seems to be reckless, with no concern about what we are losing as a people. I understand the benefit of these new technologies. I also understand why businesses are so interested in pursuing them. They want growth -- they are not bothered by the soft human issues that concern many of us.

The Perils of Rapid Transformation

Although there is little conversation about the loss of privacy that is occurring at light speed today, many people do care. Even though we admire and welcome new technology to our world, we also realize that we should be moving more deliberately.

After all, if we continue to move ahead quickly and blindly, someday we may find ourselves falling over the edge of a cliff, simply because our navigation system told us it would be a great shortcut. Oops!

Both Nineteen Eighty-Four and Somebody's Watching Me warned people of what was ahead.

It's not too late to heed those warnings and decide to advance more deliberately and carefully. We could use more insights into where we are heading. If not, the time may come when we're recalling how the 1984 film The Terminator predicted the future too.


Jeff Kagan has been an ECT News Network columnist since 2010. His focus is on the wireless and telecom industries. He is an independent analyst, consultant and speaker. Email Jeff.


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