Why the cold winds of autumn are beginning to blow—foretelling the future—perdition: technologies, drivers, and obstacles—why we’ve “had it so good”—and why these “good times” will not last.
The Gathering Storm
Now, it’s not news to say that governments worldwide are deploying increasingly intrusive techniques to monitor, profile, and control their citizens. So why don’t we continue to do what we’ve done in the past and make incremental adjustments to our privacy solutions to cope with this growing threat? The reason is that this “business as usual” approach might well prove to be a fatal mistake: new legislation and new technologies adopted over a relatively short period of time might defeat our attempts to create any privacy solutions at all. We don’t think it’s possible to quantify the likelihood that this scenario will come to pass, but we are beginning to feel uneasy. The first squalls of what may well prove to be autumn are beginning to blow through the once bountiful land of “Permissive Privacy”, and the winter ahead may well be very hard indeed. Perhaps we would be wise to look at what threats may present themselves over the course of the next few centuries, and then prepare, in a timely manner, the foundations upon which we can build privacy solutions to weather this gathering storm.
Crystal Ball Gazing
Now, we don’t claim to have a better crystal ball than anyone else, but cross our palms with silver—or should that be gold—and we’ll stare into its misty depths, where we see:
It was the year 2284. The peoples of planet earth had resolved their differences, and a utopian age of peace and goodwill had dawned in the newly founded global state of Utoria.
As soon as a child was born he was interfaced to the “hypernet”. The interface, or the “helmet” as it was called, consisted of an organo-metallic construct, a polly-alloy of tungsten, from which nanoscale fibres grew into the developing brain along genetically engineered chemical gradients, and then branched out to form a dense network that had intimate neuronal contact at both the cellular and synaptic levels.
Just as the internal connections of the helmet monitored each individual’s thought processes and affective functioning, attached to its outer layers was a vast array of sensors that recorded in meticulous detail his experiences of the external world.
In accordance with the policy of “techstasi”, the contents of both worlds were automatically published to the “hyperzines” for all of Utoria’s citizens to view. This policy, encouraged by centuries of “Reality-VTV”, was modelled on a social analysis of East Germany, the twentieth century’s nation state most noted for its solicitous concern for its citizens—the “histozines” recorded how the Stasi had encouraged the populace to be attentive to the welfare of their neighbours, and to report any signs of distress or unhappiness, so that remedial action could be taken in a timely manner. The Council of Utoria had found that distributing its “welfare state” software amongst the billions of hypernet nodes led to very efficient processing, and had the added benefit of providing vicarious entertainment for the “RVTVers”.
Germ-line genetic manipulation had ensured that about eighty percent of the population now fell into the biddable RVTV category. The other twenty percent still showed varying degrees of reluctance to conform to the “happiness” edicts passed by Utoria’s Council. Indeed, there were still a small number of “info-terrorists” who sought to disconnect themselves, at least temporarily, from the hypernet, who tried to prevent some of their personal experiences from being shared with their fellow citizens, and who showed a dismal lack of respect for both authority and correct orthography by consistently doubling the “l” whenever called upon to spell the word “helmet”. There were, of course, laws to help reintegrate such individuals into Utorian society. It was, for example, a criminal offence to possess a computing device or to wear a helmet that was not connected to the hypernet 24/7.
To care for these “lost sheep” the Council relied upon the services of a vast army of software agents, called “pastors”. The pastors patrolled the hypernet. They entered every node in turn and inspected its contents—the construction of a “hyperscreen” to exclude a pastor was a criminal offence. Once in a node, a pastor would scan the mandatory logs of its owner’s experiences and his reactions to them, and ensure that there was no sign of any malfunction, no intimation of incipient mental illness, no desire of not conforming to the correct world view. Where a malfunction was detected the individual would be taken off-line while the diseased circuitry in his neuronal matrix was replaced or reprogrammed.
It was into this Arcadia, into this Elysian and Edenic world, that Winston Smith’s great-great-great- great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandson was born.
Why this will come to pass
Now, we don’t want to be alarmist. We’ve deliberately painted a bleak picture of the future in order to engage you, dear reader. But, how likely is such a future to come to pass? Where in a range of “probable-possible- improbable-impossible” would you place it? Well, our “guesstimate” falls somewhere between the probable and the possible. If you disagree, then why? Let’s have a look at the technology, the drivers, and the obstacles.
Now, it does not look as though Moore’s law—the doubling of processor speed and memory capacity about every two years—will be disproved any time soon. A decade ago it looked as though we might well be stuck in “microland”, but nascent developments in nanotechnology make it reasonably certain that “nanoland” awaits, heralding a billion-fold increase in processor speed and memory storage capacity. Add to that the recent developments in clustering states of entangled qubits, developments that may well lead to quantum computers with “attitude”, in contrast to the “wimpish” proof-of-concept specimens that we have today.
If the “helmet” seems improbable then we suggest you review the developments in “wearable computers”, in self-assembling nanoscale structures, and in the understanding of the genetic switches that control the growth and differentiation of biological structures. Apply the above to the early mammalian brain, one characterised by a great degree of neuronal plasticity. Then throw in a few centuries of hard graft by scientists, heavily funded by both the business and military sectors. We suggest that the fruit of these labours may well bear an uncanny resemblance to the “helmet” envisioned above.
Now, if you look at the leaders of today’s world you’ll be spoilt for choice when it comes to selecting candidates for whom the above scenario would prove an attractive one. Wouldn’t it be nice to have so much information and so much control? Wouldn’t it be nice to be permanently in government, because those “diseased” individuals who might wish to have you out of government could be, thanks to the marvels of modern science, cured of their affliction?
Obstacles, what Obstacles?
Who will stop governments from using these newly available technologies to bring about our “2284”—for example, we gather that two-thirds of all Americans claim that they don’t mind the US government spying on their activities, and in a “democracy” two-thirds will do very nicely indeed. Why, in time, not wearing your “helmet” might be seen as positively unpatriotic.
The perennial problem with democracies is that the vast majority of the populace only focus on the immediate past and the immediate future. These people react to “clear and present dangers”, but are oblivious to dangers that develop in small incremental stages—“the road to hell lies open night and day; soft the descent and easy is the way.” In some ways the threat from Big Brother is like the threat from global warming: its menace grows slowly, and it’s easy for governments and other naysayers to claim there’s no definite proof. But the problem is that the “tipping point” beyond which change is inevitable and cannot be stopped may well occur before that “conclusive” proof becomes available.
The reason that privacy is often relatively easy to maintain in today’s world is that we do not live in a world with one Big Brother, but in a world with many—recall that the world of Orwell’s Winston Smith was the sealed world of Oceania, dominated by one Big Brother. However, unlike Winston, we live in a world possessed of the Internet which spans the territories controlled by many warring Big Brothers. And we are able to use the hostility between them to maintain our privacy—by, for example, distributing the nodes of our proxy chain amongst the contending parties—for each Big Brother only seeks to vanquish his own dissidents, all the while holding fast to the maxim that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”.
We also live in a world where, until recently, many nation states took a “permissive” view towards the use of encryption within their own national borders. And in those regimes that have taken a “proscriptive” view and have completely banned encryption there has often been such a degree of internal disorder and corruption that, in practice, the use of encryption has still proved possible.
But this relatively happy state of affairs will not last. We have seen a steady coming together of nation states, as they merge into superblocks. For example, the US, Canada, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand for many purposes form the “Oceania” of today, and while the degree to which they share information on their respective citizens is still patchy, it grows steadily. Within Russia, China, India, and the non-aligned block, the past few decades have seen convergence on both the political and economic fronts. It seems inevitable that within the course of a few centuries, there will be—allowing for a considerable degree of devolution to regional and local governments—one state, ruled over by one Big Brother.