If there’s a depressing slogan for the early era of the commercial internet, it’s this: “Privacy is dead – get over it.”
For most of us, the internet is complex and opaque. Some might be vaguely aware that their personal data are getting sucked, their search histories tracked, and their digital journeys scoured.
But the current nature of online services provides few mechanisms for individuals to have oversight and control of their information, particularly across tech-vendors.
An important question is whether privacy will change as we enter the era of pervasive computing. Underpinned by the Internet of Things, pervasive computing is where technology is seamlessly embedded within the real world, intrinsically tied to the physical environment.
If the web is anything to go by, the new hyperconnected world will only make things worse for privacy. Potentially much worse.
More services and more things only mean more data being generated and exchanged. The increase in data volume and complexity might plausibly result in less control. It’s a reasonable assumption, and it leaves privacy in a rather sorry state.
Many of the future predictions about privacy reflect this bleak diagnosis. If privacy isn’t dead yet, then billions-upon-billions of chips, sensors, and wearables will seal the deal.
But before jumping to such conclusions – and bearing in mind the immense power of established tech-vendors and their interest in this space – there may still be reasons to be positive. In particular, the fundamental differences between pervasive computing and Web 2.0 provide a beacon of hope.
One difference is that with pervasive computing, much of the technology becomes tangible and familiar. This makes issues of privacy more readily apparent to users. Web browsing histories stretching back over time are one thing; Google Glass is quite another.
If you can physically witness aspects of data collection, it short-circuits what has traditionally been a long feedback loop between privacy risk and cumulative effect. The hope is that the increased awareness inspires action.
This ties to a second difference: the technology itself could enable action. Unlike the web, where offerings tend to be one-size-fits-all, pervasive computing is driven by the individual, focusing on customised, person-centric services and experiences.
If the technology supporting this properly places individuals in the driving seat, it could also be used to provide individuals with the opportunity to take control of their personal data.
Moving from the abstract web
It has taken years for the sort of awareness and backlash that we’re now starting to see against Facebook, Google, and other major internet vendors that trade in personal data.
This is a product, in many respects, of the inherent obscurity of data collection by web-based services.
Moving from the web to the Internet of Things, many aspects of technology shift from being abstract and hidden, to being grounded in the real world.