The Chinese Wall that Isn’t

I used to work at a Swiss bank. At investment banks they have a virtual Chinese wall that exists between folks who do deals and the trade floor for obvious reasons.

At my bank, and this is back in 2000/2001, the people who did the deals and those who traded shared elevators, lunch rooms, pubs and so on. So you can imagine the level of cross pollination.

The US government, just another organization, has been given the green light to dig through your data if you’re storing that data in the cloud with Google using, for example, Google Drive, Google Docs or GMail. We’re trusting that they’ll keep their perusals limited to national security concerns and not tax enforcement, criminal investigation, foreign intelligence gathering or background checks and won’t leak data to credit rating agencies or anyone else. The old virtual Chinese wall.

The latest development with Google sets a precedent for other companies and their obligation to hand over data to government employees. That includes Dropbox, Intuit and their web based Quickbooks app, Facebook and so on. The trove of data the government now has access to makes the NSA’s traditional intelligence gathering look positively pedestrian. Oh for the good old days of Echelon.

As Google’s executive chairman once said, “If you don’t have anything to hide, you have nothing to fear.”.

This was where I was going to end this post. But lets take this idea a little further. Lets assume underpaid government employees are rifling through our data and habeas corpus is still as optional as extraordinary rendition. If you’re like me and are, at least in your own eyes, basically a good guy or girl, what’s the best thing you can do to prevent being falsely accused of something?

In a future world where people who have the power to accuse and convict are reading your docs, you can encrypt, encapsulate, misdirect, protest and so on. Or another approach is to provide an overwhelming amount of data on who you are, what you’re up to, what your views are, who you associate with, what you buy and so on. Remove all ambiguity on whether you’re a good or bad person. Essentially open source your life to avoid accusation.

I’m not sure what the right approach is, but as counterintuitive as it seems, I tend to favor the latter.

Life without privacy

If one were to extrapolate where we will be 100 years from now, I think the most profound difference between then and now may be an almost complete absence of privacy.

Arthur C Clarke collaborated with Stephen Baxter on a novel called “The Light of Other Days” which describes the development of a camera for consumers based on wormhole technology that allows anyone to see anywhere in 3 dimensional space, and to also move the camera backwards or forwards in time. So besides witnessing the birth of Jesus, one can see what your neighbor was doing three weeks ago in their bathroom.

They explore how the impact of this technology modifies social behavior and accepted norms.

We’re heading into this world at a pace that defies belief. Your cellphone contains a GPS that tells the world where you are at any moment, whether you like it or not. If you are one of the 845 million active users on Facebook, there is a record of who you are, your history and your relationships that puts to shame every national security database that ever existed. We have Google maps providing satellite coverage of most of the planet with street level views constantly updated.

The latest development that has the potential to make Google’s coverage of the Earth real-time is that the FAA will integrate unmanned drones into United States airspace by 2015. To put this in perspective, the lowest low earth orbiting satellites are roughly 100 miles (160km) above Earth. All Google satellite imagery you see is taken from at least that distance and only on a cloud free day. Unmanned drones can reduce that to 500 feet (150 meters) or less, depending on how the FAA decides to regulate them. They can also take photos at a far more acute angle, providing images similar to Google’s street level.

Consider the amount of street level coverage Google has provided by manually driving vans around the USA and the rest of the world, and then remove need for a human driver, increase the speed and add three dimensional space with it’s lack of traffic signals, greater space and point to point navigation.

Privacy may become similar to music and movies. The RIAA and MPAA are trying to enforce a value system that worked before digital media became instantly reproducible and redistributable. What if we find ourselves trying to enforce a societal value system that worked before information about individuals became instantly and always available?

Eric Schmidt’s comments back in ’09 that “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place,” may prove to be the new social norm we live by 100 years from now.