At some point our future will probably feature ubiquitous swarms of nanobots in the air and water. They’ll be networked and slaved to an AI overseer watching absolutely everything. The simple act of breathing or drinking will draw these things into your body, where they’ll monitor not only your location and conversations, but even your biology.
It’s probably inevitable even if free-floating swarms are deemed too dangerous or politically unviable. They’ll simply be marketed as “life saving” devices to monitor your health and to locate missing children and so forth. People will fight for the chance to pay for nanobot injections if it means not dying of heart attacks or worrying about their children being abducted.
But all that’s far enough into the future that it’s difficult for most people to take very seriously, and ultimately it doesn’t matter very much because privacy is already dead and rotting in the morgue. Most people simply haven’t noticed yet.
You’ve been under near-constant surveillance for at least a decade
Anyone who isn’t already aware should realize that simply by virtue of how cellphones work, they necessarily track your location. It takes a lot of power to broadcast over a distance, and there are countless devices competing for a very limited number of frequencies. Cellphones deal with these problems by transmitting only to a nearby tower, which then acts as a repeater, re-broadcasting transmissions to another tower and eventually to a switching station which negotiates a two-way conversation to be relayed back across the network.
There are many benefits to this. For example, somebody only a few miles away could be speaking over the same exact radio frequencies you are, but because transmissions are relayed at low power from only specific towers, you won’t hear them and they won’t hear you. That’s important. But to be able to do that, the network has to know where you are at all times.
The above video is from 2009, and precisely shows a person’s location relative to the towers his phone is in range of. Whenever you see the phone icon, that indicates they’re making a call, but the phone stays in contact with the network at all times regardless.
There’s little reason for this data to ever be deleted. If you carry a cellphone, somebody today can potentially find out exactly where you’ve been for every minute of every day for the past ten years. Looking forward, people won’t necessarily even need to be law enforcement to retrieve that data. Cellphone tracking apps are literally free downloads these days.
No court order or elite hacking required – people are voluntarily downloading these tools without care or thought for the implications. What happens when an entire generation of children grow up with tracking apps on their phones broadcasting their location at all times? No doubt parents will feel safer knowing where little Billy is, but little Billy is going to wind up conditioned like a lab rat to accept 24/7 real-time surveillance as normal.
What surveillance would be complete without audio?
Back in the 70s and 80s, the US and Russia were at the height of the cold war. Schoolchildren woke up wondering whether they’d survive the day or be annihilated by nuclear hellfire falling from the sky. In that era, wiretaps and audio surveillance were considered either spycraft tools of the enemy, or an Orwellian nightmare reminder that Big Brother is Watching You.
Today people buy always-on surveillance devices, AKA “smart speakers” and gleefully install them into their own homes. Like cellphones, for these devices to work, they have to be constantly monitoring you even when you’re not using them. Yes, according to both the Google Home and Amazon Alexa privacy policies, these devices only retain data for conversations that contain their activation keyword, which can then be reviewed and deleted by the user at any time.
In the long term, “always recording” has so much value that it seems inevitable. Manufacturers won’t even need to push for this. Consumers will demand it. Smart speakers are early versions of what will eventually become home personal AI assistants. They can already schedule appointments and make online purchases for you. Eventually they’ll evolve to become your own personal Jarvis, able to talk and have complete conversations with you. To do that, they’ll need to have persistent memory. Nobody’s going to be satisfied with an AI that can’t remember what was said 30 seconds ago.
That means they’ll eventually transition to always on and everywhere. Tech giants have made no secret of this. Look at cross-device functionality for Microsoft Cortana. The plan is to have the same AI…not just the “same software” but the same AI and everything it knows about you available everywhere you go. Have a PC? Cortana is there. Have a phone? Cortana’s there too. In time, she’ll be available in your car, and on your smart fridge and your smart glasses and every other device in your life. Make an appointment on your phone, and later that day the display on your car’s dashboard will pop up with a reminder. Eventually that same functionality will be available whether or not you even own the hardware she’s running on. For example, imagine walking past a mall billboard and seeing your own personal AI assistant on it, who advises you that the shop you’re walking past has that new gadget you mentioned wanting the other day. Your data will be in the cloud. All the billboard operator has to do is make the hardware available, and it won’t be any more complicated for the software than accessing both your PC and your smartphone.
You think consumers won’t allow that? You think they’ll be sufficiently concerned about their privacy that they’ll even take the time to check an “opt out” box, let alone fight it? Not a chance. Remember little Billy being trained to accept 24/7 surveillance? When the children of today grow up, they’re not going to care who has access to their personal data, because they’ll have had an entire lifetime of being taught that it’s normal for everyone to know everything about them.
Privacy is dead.