posted by David Adams on Wed 19th Mar 2008 10:41 UTC
IconThe technologies we rely on, both new and old, are now very effective tools that both governments and private firms are using to gather, analyze, store, and sell information about our private lives, habits, purchases, whereabouts, and even thoughts and beliefs. But some of this invasion of privacy pays a welcome dividend in convenience and power in our own lives. Where do we draw the line, and how can we use this potentially-invasive technology for our benefit, without sacrificing our private lives to commerce?

Successful political regimes have always relied on effective intelligence networks. Knowing other people's secrets helped rulers thwart internal plots against them and helped undermine enemy countries. Before the 19th century, spycraft consisted almost entirely of physically infiltrating personal meetings, intercepting written communications, eavesdropping, and extracting information from people by interrogation.

The 20th century, a time of so much technological and social change, brought about a whole new era of spying. Legendary, if sometimes infamous, organizations like the East German Stasi, The American NSA, and the British codebreakers at Bletchley Park made startling innovations in the art of using technology to listen in on, read, decode or otherwise intercept messages from anyone. The "surveillance society," which some people merely feared, and others actively inhabited, has been a grave concern for advocates of liberty, due to its tendency to secretly grow in scale and scope, until it surveils not just known enemies of the state, not just suspected enemies, but all potential enemies (i.e. everybody).

As enlightened government leaders struggle to reconcile the need to protect the general populace from harm versus the right of people to live private lives, technological progress marches on, and the capability of spy agencies increases daily. This is an ongoing subject of debate among the political class, privacy advocates, and the general public, and that's a very good thing. Something that's less part of the public dialogue is the growing capability for private organizations to spy on people. I'm not referring to high profile cases like AT&T handing over information to the government, but to private companies collecting and analyzing private information about us for their own gain (or even for ours). Just as the TV sets in Orwell's 1984 turned double-duty as an eye to spy on people in their homes, our computers, TVs, and the technology that powers the retailers and service providers who offer us entertainment and goods, also form a many-tenticled arsenal for private firms to compile and use our personal information for their own gain.

A few years ago, a small car rental company came under fire when a customer discovered that he had been charged a fine for speeding. This wasn't a case of the car company forwarding on a fine levied by some local police force, but rather, the company had installed a GPS unit that monitored where their cars went and at what speed. The renter had agreed in the contract to pay a fine for speeding, but it was not made clear to him that he would be constantly monitored by satellite. Eventually, the state consumer protection agency determined that it was improper for a private company to levy a fine when there has been no damage done.

Inexpensive and feature-rich GPS tracking and networking technology have made it possible for the owner of every vehicle to be able to track the vehicle's, movement, location, speed, and other data, and have it transmitted in real-time. Actions could even trigger automatic reaction, such as the issuance of a fee, an audible notification to the driver, or a text message to the owner. This certainly makes the enforcement of rules easier, and might even afford the driver of the car increased freedom.

Consider this scenario: sending a teenaged child out into the world with a car is very nerve-wracking for a parent. Many parents lay down rules to try to mitigate the dangers to inexperienced drivers, such as carry no passengers, only drive in specific areas, only drive during the daytime, don't drive on the freeway, etc. If parents are unsure whether their child would be able to adhere to these rules, due to peer pressure or just plain bad judgement, they might resolve that uncertainty by not letting the teen drive at all. However, if that car were equipped with a GPS tracking device, and the teen knew about it and agreed that he could drive on the condition that his location and speed be monitored, it would be a welcome alternative to not being able to drive at all, and having to be chauffeured by mom. Most teens would agree to those terms, I suspect.

The rental car/speeding controversy wasn't really morally defensible because the rental car company didn't have a stake in whether their car was driven at 77 miles per hour instead of 65. It wasn't damaging the car, and if the driver crashed, he would be legally responsible for the damage anyway. But there's another scenario that's a bit murkier. In the United States, auto insurance is a gigantic business. A study released last week determined that traffic crashes in the US cost a staggering $164 billion per year, or over $1000 per person. Much of that money is channeled through auto insurance companies, who collect premiums from drivers and pay out claims for damage, medical bills, and court settlements. The way it works is that insurance companies have developed sophisticated models to determine a profile of risk for each insured person. Teenagers and people with sports cars and 4x4s pay more, older, experienced drivers with five-year-old sedans pay less. But some fifty-year-old Honda Accord owners drive recklessly and will eventually cause deadly ten car pileups, while some sixteen years olds in sports cars are careful and responsible drivers.

Likewise, some stretches of road are much more prone to accident than others, due to weather conditions, the makeup of the road (curvy, unpaved, narrow), lighting, proximity to bars, etc. Building a database of the likelihood of accident on a particular stretch of road is not hard, and many states already release this data to the public. Furthermore, it's easy to understand that the more time a driver spends on the road, the more likelihood of an eventual accident. So is it fair that the 50 year-old sedan driver who clocks 120 miles daily, travels on both congested urban freeways and treacherous country byways, stops nightly at bars, and regularly speeds should pay a fraction of what the 16 year-old sports car driver who drives the speed limit five miles between home and school each day does? No, it's not fair, of course. But the insurance company doesn't have enough data to charge each person a fair rate. But they could.

Table of contents
  1. 'The Spyware World, Page 1'
  2. 'The Spyware World, Page 2'
e p (6)    9 Comment(s)

Technology White Papers

See More