Say Goodbye to Privacy


You’re probably about to lose something precious. Something you can’t see. Something you can’t touch, taste, or smell and probably don’t think about regularly. And yet when it’s gone, which I believe it will be soon, you may spend the rest of your life longing for it.

What you’re about to lose is your privacy.

Actually, it’s worse than that. You aren’t just going to lose your privacy, you’re going to have to watch the very concept of privacy be rewritten under your nose. That’s because while the Internet of Things (IoT) is going to add a lot to our lives, it’s probably going to take our privacy in payment, whether you want it to or not.

We shouldn’t be surprised that the IoT will change things, nor that the full impact is difficult to predict. Big changes brought on by technology are something we’ve seen plenty of times before. When the steam engine was first introduced in the 1800’s, no one could have foreseen the impact it would have on the way we think about everything from transportation, city design, even need for a standard “time” across the country.

[ Also on Insights: Tackling Privacy Concerns Is Key to Expanding the Internet of Things ]

Other changes have followed, driven by new technology – the internal combustion engine, flight, the integrated circuit, the Internet. All of these technological changes forced us to redefine how we think about our lives, what technology means to us. Over the years, these changes have created, and killed, entire industries. At each step, the impact of our technology arrived faster, and was more deeply felt.

Yet the Internet of Things won’t just change some particular aspects of our lives; it won’t affect say commerce, or industry, or politics. It will affect, shape, even redefine them all. At once. And, if the past is anything to go by, the changes will happen even more quickly than ever before.

Why? What makes the IoT so unique in the long history of technological change?

1. It is the aggregation of a large number of already disruptive technologies, and it combines the disruptive elements of those technologies in new ways, magnifying their effects. Smart tech, the Internet, social identity, big data, cloud, mobility, all these are affected by, and contribute to, the emerging IoT. It’s like putting gun powder, dynamite, nitroglycerine, and a bunch of road flares into a box and shaking them up. Something’s going to happen, and happen fast.

2. The IoT is pervasive in a way that nothing else has been, except possibly pottery and agriculture, and those two technologies *defined* human existence. The IoT will be *everywhere* which means that when the changes occur (and they will) those changes will impact everything, and everyone – there’s no ‘offline’ no ‘standby’ for the IoT. No one will be able to escape its impact, because you won’t *use* the IoT, you’ll live inside it – all day, every day.

3. As a society we’re addicted to tech in a way that no generation ever has been before and we already have the mindset – the Pavlovian response – to readily embrace this next generation of technology that IoT represents in an unquestioning manner. We rely on it for everything and we’ve been trained to expect technology to answer our every need, because no matter what the question – there’s an app for that. Yet, the most profound effect of all the ways in which the IoT changes our lives is that it will blur, to the point of invisibility, the concept of privacy. When we live in a world in which there are countless sensors and smart objects around us, all the time; when the clothes we wear, even things inside our bodies, are smart and connected, then the concept of “private” becomes far more ephemeral. What’s private? From whom? When?

As more and more information is gathered about us, constantly, so the concept of being offline, of being unavailable, or simply being alone, will recede. And as it goes, so will our control over the information gathered about us. Big data, especially, is going to make it hard to keep anything private – as more and more things gather increasing contextual information about our behavior, so the capability to analyze and predict, to seek out the identity of the people behind every action, will open very public windows into all our lives.

We may well be living in the last era of privacy – and standing on the brink of a post-privacy society. It’s not easy to imagine what that will be like. Perhaps in the end it will force us to face the deeper truths about human nature, that we are all much the same. Perhaps it will be an Orwellian nightmare in which governments spy on us constantly. Most probably, it will be a little of both.

The good news, however, is that we almost certainly won’t have to wait long to find out.

Geoff Webb is Director of Solution Strategy at NetIQ.


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