Why privacy is dead and there's nothing you can do about it

"I've been on the Internet since 1980," crackles the voice of Nathaniel Borenstein on the conference call that's connecting him to London from the wilds of Northern Michigan. "I've had enough time to make 25 year predictions and see whether they'd come true or not. You just need to do the math around Moore's Law, which says the power of our devices doubles approximately every two years."

If anyone has earned the right to prophesise the future of the web, it would be Borenstein. As one of the original designers of the MIME protocol for electronic mail and the sender of the first ever email attachment, he's no stranger to taking revolutionary steps forward in the virtual space.

But what will drive the next leaps? Unless you have recently returned from a remote monastery retreat nestled in the Tibetan mountains, it will have been hard over the past few years to avoid increasingly feverish whispers that as computers get smaller, we'll soon have the technology to implant them in our bodies. Indeed, as we squeeze more and more technology into smaller and smaller devices, we may soon have computers and cameras small enough to be implanted in a wall, unseen to the naked eye.

According to Borenstein, however, the question of what we can do is one question - what we will choose to do is another. "Our choice is whether to use these technologies in a way that promotes human happiness and freedom or not," he says. "The analogy I just came up with is that in 1946, they said we had two choices for our future: global annihilation (with new nuclear technology) or a world with far less war. It doesn't always feel like it, but since 1945 the amount of war in the world has gone down by up to 90 per cent.

"So looking now at the technology that's coming in 25 years, for instance implantable devices, you can predict it'll be used for monitoring your blood stream and giving you incredibly early warnings about potential problems such as cancer. It can also, however, be used by employers to monitor your health and look for ways to get rid of you."

So really, as we celebrated the 25th birthday of the World Wide Web last week, the big question of the next quarter century we should be considering is "now we've got this powerful technology, what do we want it to do?"

Many believe that we are still teetering on the edge of a privacy precipice, facing the possibility of falling into a future where everyone's identity is vulnerable to scrutiny on the open Internet, yet we are still hopeful of the chance to be pulled back from the brink. Borenstein, on the other hand, is resolutely realistic.

"I've not seen any real attempts to halt the erosion of privacy," the computer scientist asserts gravely. "I think privacy really is dead, which is why I'm interested in mutual transparency, the idea that if it is dying, privacy should die bi-directionally." As David Brin explored in his 1988 book The Transparent Society, the idea is that if the police can spy on what we're doing, we should be able to spy on the police station; as we lose our privacy we gain something else.

Indeed, Borenstein seems hopeful that a loss of privacy will bring some unexpected benefits, such as a growth of tolerance for issues that many people feel afraid to speak out on and hide, such as gay marriage. "I don't consider my vision dystopian, because on every subject other than privacy I think we have a very positive future," he says. "I think the things these devices can do for us will be amazing. On the privacy side, the problem is putting the genie back in the bottle. You could try developing unbreakable cryptography and making it available to the public, but the only problem with that is there is no unbreakable cryptography and if there were governments wouldn't want it available to the public. I'm sceptical of a solution because most cryptography is broken not by mathematics but by carelessness. You leave your password lying around for instance, and all the keys to the kingdom are made available. "

But what of those who want to fight to protect their right to privacy? Borenstein believes they'll simply be overpowered.

"For over a decade, the millennial generation has been growing up with less of an expectation of privacy. I think a society that cuts itself off from society with no Internet won't be able to succeed, there's nothing to stop police implanting cameras in the walls. If your only goal is the preservation of privacy, I think you should be discouraged."

It may be time then to retreat to that bunker at the bottom of your garden, tin foil hat and multi-pack of canned beans in tow. Still, Borenstein seems to think that even as the far-reaching tendrils of the World Wide Web wrap burrow even deeper into our lives, it will push up new and exciting opportunities for growth in other areas.

"I think the lack of privacy will come to be viewed in the way we view mortality. It's an inevitability we have to come to terms with it. I don't think people will be happy with it any more than they're happy about death, but I think they'll try to mitigate the damage whenever they can by things like transparency enforced by governments and they'll try to appreciate the things that they do have while they have them which will include the incredible information technology at their fingertips (or in their fingertips!) "


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