“Americans live their lives on their phones now.” So wrote 15 prominent technology companies, including Google, Facebook, Amazon and Snapchat, in a legal brief supporting Apple in its now-moot fight with the Justice Department over unlocking the San Bernardino killer’s iPhone. Our phones have become “an extension of our memories,” the companies argued, and “to access someone’s cellphone is to access their innermost thoughts and their most private affairs.”
Although the companies are right, their earnest defense of privacy is deeply ironic, if not hypocritical. They are, after all, in the business of surveillance. They collect personal data on a scale that would make most law enforcement agencies blush. The very existence of firms like Google and Facebook hinges on their ability to monitor our innermost thoughts and our most intimate affairs, to tap into our digital memory pretty much continuously.
We’re now in the early stages of the so-called Internet of Things. Companies are rushing to install sensors and transmitters in all manner of consumer and industrial goods. These network-connected “things” will be able to beam reports on our behavior to corporate databases. We won’t be tracked just by our smartphones. We’ll be tracked by our cars, our homes, our clothes, our appliances and the machines and tools we use in our jobs.
We’re beginning to see the extent of the surveillance the Internet of Things will entail. Thermostats and smoke detectors sold by Nest, a unit of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, collect information on a home’s temperature, humidity and lighting as well as the movements of people in rooms. Amazon’s Echo, a voice-activated home automation device, records conversations and stores them in Amazon’s cloud. The cars built by Tesla contain sensors that track and transmit a vehicle’s location and its owner’s driving habits. Vicks sells a rectal thermometer with a Bluetooth transmitter and accompanying smartphone app. Under Armour has announced plans to put biometric sensors in the underwear and other garments it makes. There doesn’t seem to be anywhere companies won’t go to collect information about us.
As consumers, we’ve always divulged information about ourselves in the course of buying products and services. If you want to get a comfortable pair of hiking boots at a local shoe store, you’re going to need to let the clerk measure your feet. If you want to build a new house that suits your lifestyle, you’re going to have to share with an architect details about how you and your family live. Technology companies would argue that the new network-connected goods fit this well-established pattern. Collecting information about us allows them to deliver more personalized products.
As the Internet of Things makes the collection and storage of personal information near universal, there will be little we do that isn’t tracked and analyzed by industry.
But there’s a big difference. In the past, exchanges of information were limited to particular purchases. The shoe clerk and the architect didn’t collaborate in preparing a detailed profile of you that they could then share with or sell to other companies. And they certainly didn’t keep tabs on you as you went through your day. As the Internet of Things makes the collection and storage of personal information near universal, there will be little we do that isn’t tracked and analyzed by industry. In many cases, companies will make more money from the collection of data than from the provision of goods. The sale of a product will no longer mark the conclusion of a transaction. It will mark the beginning of a surveillance regimen.
Ever since Internet firms started tracking us online, we’ve worried about the loss of privacy. Knowing that we’re always under watch can erode our sense of autonomy and circumscribe our freedom of thought and action. The Internet of Things brings an added danger. As businesses learn even more about our habits and desires, they’ll be able to mold our behavior to fit their own interests. The networked devices that surround us won’t just collect information about us. They’ll start telling us what to do.
Earlier this year, Google began testing a new algorithm, called Driving Mode, for its popular Maps application on Android phones. By analyzing all the information the company collects about you through Web searches and location tracking, the algorithm is able to tell you, without prompting, which destination you ought to drive to next. Google, in effect, takes the wheel. In its small way, Driving Mode offers a peek into a world where everything is not only watching us, but guiding us.
That world is not inevitable. If the arrival of the Internet of Things provides an opportunity to expand the Silicon Valley surveillance complex, it also provides an opportunity to rein in that complex. By placing restrictions on how companies exploit personal data, we can make “privacy” rather than “surveillance” the Internet’s default setting.
Under this regulatory system, a carmaker would be able to gather data on a vehicle’s operation in order to improve its maintenance or alert drivers to problems. But it wouldn’t be able to sell the information or use it for advertising or marketing — and it would have to delete the information when it was no longer of immediate use. Nest would be able to analyze information on room temperature and humidity in order to adjust thermostat settings to keep a home comfortable and energy-efficient, but it wouldn’t be able to merge that information with other personal data that Google collects or use it to track a person’s whereabouts.
It’s possible to gain the benefits of a connected world without submitting ourselves to surveillance and manipulation. By retaking ownership and control over our personal information, we can make sure that we’re treated as people rather than as things.
Nicholas Carr is the author of “The Shallows” and the forthcoming “Utopia Is Creepy.”