In China, the government is using data to control the country’s population. By building a firewall around China and then replacing the blocked global tech services with locally owned versions it can control, the government is able to create a digital profile of each person’s actions, affiliations, statements, acts, and misdemeanors. On this, people are “scored” within a “social credit” system and rewarded or penalized accordingly.
The recent coverage of Cambridge Analytica and Facebook shows just how much corporations in the West know about us without us knowing. The sting on Cambridge Analytica and extensive reporting by Carole Cadwalladr, along with the Facebook Senate hearings, have shown how companies that manipulate public opinion are operating in a way that very few people, and clearly not our lawmakers, can really understand.
Quantum computing will soon be able to break modern encryption, laying open everything we so far thought was private and safe, and more powerful computers will be able to search and map this data going back through digital time. Yes, today’s quantum computing is far off from doing this, but think of your current iPhone compared to your first PC, and assume that somewhere in the future, computers will be more powerful and capable than anything we can imagine today.
In all three scenarios, let alone all three combined, privacy is threatened on a scale we have never thought about. We are entering the post-privacy age.
Most of all, I feel for our children. They are growing up in a world where everything is connected, viewable, shared. They obsess over their image, worry about their following and who likes their posts. They suffer from cyberbullying and are exposed to the entire collective consciousness and memory of mankind all at once through their phone. They are no longer drip-fed access toward adulthood year by year, but instead see at one moment all of mankind’s horror, brute reality, fantasy and conspiracy, all of history and all of now, all at once regardless of whether they are ready or able to process it. They lost the filters of youth and innocence as the adults around them dumped the contents of their minds onto the web and gave them a tablet as a window into the darkest corners of their psyche.
Beyond what children can understand is that, as they become adults, they will be the first generation whose entire life will become a searchable digital profile. Everything the young do now is recorded. Not just the things they know are recorded, but information from security cameras to school reports, photos of them in a nightclub, CCTV of them buying alcohol with a fake ID, their internet search history, their likes, and their social graphs. Not only will the internet log who they know, but it will also map everyone they’ve ever known or interacted with digitally. While all this information isn’t yet searchable and may (for now) be private, it exists, and will do forever in a way that our current society is entirely unprepared to understand. Moreover, a child born in China in 2020 will be born into their social credit system, with its every action and word being mapped and tracked from birth.
What we should really fear is when future computers have the power to search everything from all of digital time and quantum computers are able to crack encryption. Suddenly, all the doors could fly open. We should anticipate a moment when a future version of Google can search for every image with your face in it. Not just photos on Facebook, but images in videos, from security cameras, from the background of other people’s holiday videos, photos of you in a crowd, marching in a rally. What happens when the opinionated teenagers of today run for political office in 20 years, and the future internet pulls up images of them as teenagers at some unsavory political meeting where they were forming their ideas? A generation back, you could make mistakes, do the stupid things teenagers do, and let it be buried by time. That is over.
A future when everything goes public will be like all the scandals of today combined into one huge social meltdown. You cannot conceptualize a database of every image and video ever taken that has your face in it; when all of those images can be correlated into a map of every place you’ve been to, every person you’ve met. This digital profile may be able to say where you were at most given moments in your past; it could break your alibis, sell your secrets, cross-check your statements and stories. Not only will you have no privacy in the future—any privacy you thought you had in the past will vanish as well.
Of course, you’d argue, this won’t actually happen, because most of that data is private, is secure. We have checks and balances in our societies to protect us from such Big Brother nightmares. But that is now. Western societies are the main advocates of people having rights, privacy, and control over what government and corporations can know about us and do with our data. This ideology mainly developed in postwar institutions and societies as a reaction to that era of dictatorships, creating rules and treaties to protect the freedoms for which the war was fought. But these are the societies in which the resurgent populist right are now arguing for less government, less regulation, for more of what they falsely believe is “freedom.”
Aside from this shift within Western democracies, it is likely that the bigger pattern we can’t see from where we stand is that the West is in decline and the future belongs to countries like China.
It is also clear that the future will also see more cyberattacks, more weaponization of information and connectivity. Imagine a future where your shadow profile at Facebook (which connects you with anyone else on Facebook who ever saved your name, phone number, or email in their phone), where police CCTV cameras, your Gmail accounts, and search history are all hacked, and that data is sold, or shared with other governments. Suddenly someone, a government, a crime gang, an army, will have a map of your entire past and be able to find memories even you have forgotten.
That is the future. It is a future where the children of today will have no privacy. Everything they do from their first steps will be recorded and associated with them forever.
At least they can plan for this and adapt how they behave to cope with a life without privacy. What about today’s adults? What about all the things our generation did back when we didn’t know about search engines? All the stupid shit we did, all the early data we created, shared on Orkut and Myspace, or those early grainy photos we dumped onto Flickr and forgot about. Today’s adults were behaving online back then with what our children would now see as reckless abandon, because we didn’t yet know that in the future there would be computers that could search back to the beginning of the digital age, find everything, and connect it all together.
As we get older, as computers get dramatically more powerful, as the right erodes the regulation that is struggling to protect us, and as countries like China become the dominant power, society is heading toward a massive car crash when suddenly every byte of data ever created about us gets hacked, is shared, becomes searchable, and falls into the hands of dictators or criminals.
Maybe that moment heralds the time when the dictatorships overrun the democracies as they suffer a huge societal collapse. The political leaders will all be engulfed by scandals as everything they ever did becomes searchable. Trust will fail, relationships will fall apart, swaths of people will lose their jobs as an unprepared society struggles to respond to a sudden release of everything, to the end of privacy.
This crash, in which government, society, and economy are all decimated, may be the opening for the already strong dictatorships to step in and take over. They will already exist in a world with no privacy and will have weaponized information so they can use such a huge data dump against us. And in their own societies, people will have already worked out how to live alongside each other and their rulers without privacy to stand between them and moderate their lives.
We are completely unprepared as a society for the end of privacy and the mass weaponization of information, as the past two years have shown. We lack the rules and the response, and we still allow ourselves to be outraged by information too easily, often without checking if it’s true.
We simply cannot conceive of what it will mean when the information attacks of the past year look normal and insignificant compared to what they foreshadow. We are not prepared for when fake videos, fake news, and fake images are as convincing as the real thing, for when truth drowns in a sea of “alternative truths,” lies, and propaganda.
Regulation, strong political unions, and internationalism offer some hope that these things will be protected; they create international standards, treaties on the use of technologies and information, like GDPR. Otherwise we are moving into a world where the people creating the future technologies in artificial intelligence, genetics,quantum computing, search capabilities, and surveillance, to name but a handful of areas, will be doing so unencumbered by ethical and democratic controls.
I pity today’s young people. They live in a daunting age increasingly devoid of secrets. But while their future past may someday be laid open for all to see, at least they can adapt their behavior now to protect their future selves. I fear for the old, who behaved in their past as if they were not being watched and recorded, only to find out decades later that they were—their indelible digital footprints following them through time, maybe to be traced back someday by the cyber-detectives of an all-seeing digital dictatorship. I’m worried that the entire paradigm of privacy that has underpinned our societies may already be dead.