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Technology and the Loss of Privacy
R. Dennis Hansen   Apr 13, 2011   Ethical Technology  

I work for a US federal agency. Recently I attended a government-mandated class dealing with the use of computers during working hours. The instructor pointed out that emails that leave our Department’s network are being scanned for content. What they are scanning for was left vague.

Also being monitored is our Internet usage, for which we have a rather klutzy censorship system. It has a variety of things that it attempts to exclude including pornography, humor, games, streaming audio and video, etc. It is so ineffective that it frequently eliminates sites that are important to job performance.

Somewhere in the Department is a large bank of computer screens—akin to a NASA control room—that monitors and displays employee computer activities in real-time. It is refreshing to note that even though our agency has a rather primitive computer network (allegedly for security reasons), we supposedly have a very sophisticated snooping system, which is appropriately called “SNIFFER.” This sobriquet alone gives employees the creeps.

monitoringIronically, a major part of my job with the federal government involves the use of real-time monitoring and control technologies to improve water management. I often talk about the advantages of this type of automation, but probably short-change the discussion of potential problems. One of these disadvantages is the loss of privacy. But since water is a public resource, state engineers have the right to monitor and regulate usage.

Recently, my colleagues and I have been examining the feasibility of using real-time monitoring and control technologies to improve living conditions in poorer rural areas. For example, if advanced water supply innovations are used, real-time monitoring can help insure sustainability and can assist with troubleshooting.

This type of monitoring involves the use something akin to smart meters. As this article in TIME magazine explains:

[Smart meters], millions of which have been deployed nationwide, wirelessly transmit [real-time] information about household energy use to utilities. The system is designed to cut costs in two ways: it eliminates the need to send out meter readers, and it provides real-time consumption data, which enables utilities to charge lower rates during off-peak hours. The idea is to encourage consumers to change their energy intensive ways; a decision as simple as when to run the dishwasher can have a significant effect on the bill.

But smart meters are not popular with all customers. For example, Tea Party members in Cleveland, Ohio, have decried the meters as a breach of privacy. And as sensors and communication systems get more and more sophisticated, the application of these technologies is spreading to other types of monitoring.

Loss of privacy is an issue we all need to take a hard look at. Monitoring water and energy use is one thing, but the technology has the potential to be very invasive. Various types of real-time monitors soon will be placed throughout our homes (including our refrigerators), our cars, and our bodies, with much of the information displayed on the Internet. For example, with GPS units in our cell phones and cars, it is suddenly possible to monitor our location and movement in real-time.

Hospitals can now attach real-time monitors to heart patients, even if they are not in their facility. The goal is to improve health care. But the application of these transhumanistic body-monitoring devices could allow insurance companies to monitor whether we are living up to the terms of our policy. It could also tell our boss whether we are really ailing.

Are we ready to be continually monitored in real-time? How important is our personal privacy?

R. Dennis Hansen is currently employed as a planner for a federal resource management agency in Utah. He enjoys traveling and has lived in and/or visited and/or worked in over 40 countries on five continents. Hansen is a member of the Mormon Transhumanist Association and Engineers without Borders.


People in general would be more open to surveillance if the government became transparent first.

I think someone on this site called it “sousveillance”.

We’re watching you watch us watch them watch you.

The government should first become transparent (and I mean 100% transparent), and then most people wouldn’t have much of a problem with this kind of tech.

If not, you’re going to have groups like Anon and WikiLeaks forever, and constant turmoil as the people struggle to fight back.

I value privacy as one of my primary rights.  I don’t like the idea of being able to be monitored by any financial interest.  Lets be honest, our day to day patterns (Internet and phone usage) are monitored enough already.  I view my time away from said electronics to be , at least in part, a privacy haven, an opportunity for my time and activities to be mine exclusively.  I have never liked the whole “We’re watching, and you should be greatful” attitude.  It’s not a security camera, you’ve been essentially lowjacked. 

I know a lot of people point out the security benefits of said lowjacking.  I frankly think it is part of a mindset created in large part by the media pervasive violent crime/abduction broadcasts.  I understand that we need to all be available to help each other if one is lost, or taken.  On the other hand both fiction and news focus so much TV/net time on rare but violent acts it creates an unnatural and unnecessary fear base.  This fear base makes us feel that such monitorring is necessary.  I argue quite the opposite, my time is my time, whether it be out at a night club or in the woods listening to the owls.  No entity besides those I choose to share those things with needs to know.  Extra people monitorring, especially corporate interests, does not confer additional safety.
As an addendum medical long term monitoring needs to be limited to health care practitioners and not the government or the insurance companies.  Both of the latter have interests that likely do not mesh with mine.  My health care provider is most likely to be working with me rather than against me.

This is an important essay.
I think we sometimes think of privacy and transparency as interchangeable or perhaps even as a trade-off. But continual monitoring may seems fundamentally at odds with a philosophy of “innocent until proven guilty”.
I also question/wonder what it means for the role of citizenship. Do we act as good citizens because we have an internal locus of responsibility about our behavior and towards others? Might an unintended consequence of continual monitoring trigger in us a reaction that undermines our sense of responsibility (it is up to the govt to catch me rather than up to me to act responsibly)?
Part of being informed is to engage with as many different sides of an issue as possible. If we know everthing we read and every site we visit is going to be tracked by someone who doesn’t know us or our motivations, does that create self-censoring behavior?
When it comes to the resources of the commons (e.g. water usage, electrical power, etc.) such monitoring may have positive results. When comes to monitoring our attitudes and personal behaviors, though, the movie “Brazil” pops to mind.

@iPan…I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect governments to become 100% transparent any time soon. I’m not even 100% sure what 100% transparent means. I’m a government official myself (working at the European Commission, but commenting here in a purely private capacity so the usual disclaimers apply). Does this mean I should create a public record every time I use the phone in the course of my work? What would that do to our ability to serve the public efficiently? Yet on one definition of “100% transparency” this would be applied. And are you suggesting we should immediately and completely abolish secret services? What practical consequences would that have?

More generally, like dor I think this is an important topic, and it’s not unrelated to the issue of humans merging with technology, which could potentially allow a bandwidth of connection between people, and between people and computers (i.e. non-biological intelligence) that could erode our sense of individual autonomy. So it’s important to think about how we feel about this. I think iPan’s point is a good one in this context (even if as argued anode I think he goes too far in demanding 100% transparency), but the issue goes well beyond our attitude to government. At root it’s an argument about our desire for autonomy versus our desire to connect. From that perspective I’m less worried about government surveillance than about the scarcity of clear thinking about what kind of future we really want.

I take the extreme idealistic position because so few do.

It’s like a tightrope stretched across a chasm. I’m on one end (the idealistic one), securing the rope to that side of the chasm, so that the majority of people have a middle ground (the rope) to traverse.

My main point is about double standards. The government loves to surveill the public, but detests any intrusion into what they are doing.

So I’m just making a point about transparency going both ways.

I think technology is going to do what it does. Secrecy is getting more difficult, whether we like it or not. Most people, at least those that use popular forms of social media, like Facebook or Twitter, don’t have privacy as it is. We’ve already given it up, for the most part.

On a more practical note, things I’d like to see:

Police wearing webcams on their uniform at all times they are on duty, with a live stream to a publicly viewable website.

All sessions of Congress streamed to the web.

All diplomatic meetings streamed to the web.

Point taken about transparency going bothh ways, although the statement “the government loves to surveill the public, but detests any intrusion into what they are doing” is a bit sweeping: remember that “government” consists of real people, not grey-faced suited zombies, who often disagree between ourselves about what we (“they”) want. (I’m convinced there are some aliens in our midst, but not necessarily more than in the general population…)

On technology doing what it does…I think that’s a tad defeatist. (Note to self: finish reading What Technology Wants over the Easter hols.) Thing about Facebook and Twitter is that it’s all voluntary: nobody is obliged to share. More importantly: yes we need to be realistic about what technology wants and will demand, but we still have choices. And consequently a need to figure out what *we* want.

@IPan and Peter

Transparency and privacy have multiple levels. One is access and another is clarity and accuracy. For example, when a presidential candidate or member of the government deliberately disseminates or repeats falsehoods, that is a violation of accuracy that crosses a line into misinformation /deception.
For a short period of time (very short) I worked for state government. The laws are not written in plain language. To some extent they are deliberately written in ambigious language. A big step towards transparency would be regulating that laws need to be “plain talked”. The need to publish the “legalese” is often a barrier to citizen involvement.

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