Ben Hammersley told the collected privacy professionals here at the Data Protection Intensive in London he bought himself an Amazon Echo for 50 GBPs. The artificial intelligence device, about the size of a Pringles can, operates much like Apple’s Siri. It responds to voice commands and fulfills orders like, “put dish detergent on my grocery list.” It’s an emerging technology that years ago would have been considered some kind of miracle, Hammersley said. But, following the logic of Moore’s law that computation capabilities double roughly every year, that kind of tech is right on track.
It is, in his words, “super cool.”
“Sometime in the next few days, a parcel will arrive with this device, and it will listen to everything I say, report back to Amazon and do things for me,” said the author, artist and futurist. “Many people will find that deeply creepy. And I possibly agree with you.”
Hammersley posited there is a cool-to-creepy continuum on which any tech advancement falls, and “I would go even further than that. I would say managing the cool-to-creepy continuum is the greatest challenge we as a society face. We’ve reached this very important point—literally right now.”
This, of course, puts privacy professionals in positions of great import.
Nor is it simply that this kind of data computation is possible right now that has Hammersley up at night. It’s what’s coming. Take the recently announced Apple Watch, for example, which takes real-time data on the wearer’s heart rate. That data could be synced with the other data stored on Apple devices—such as a calendar, for example. Ostensibly, the wearer could start to notice the kinds of meetings or events correlated with a higher heart level. Stretching that, what if users started sharing that kind of data with each other, even posting it to each others’ LinkedIn accounts, for example. Suddenly, John Doe is getting a bad rep professionally; nine out of 10 colleagues who take a meeting with him report consequential hits to their health!
“That’s kind of cool, but it’s kind of creepy” if you are that employee, Hammersley said.
But we don’t even have to go that far. Even now, shopping mall ad displays can track the cellphones that walk past for information on where users travel, shop, work and play. There are smart TVs that record what their watchers are saying or where they’re moving in the home for data that’s collected, analyzed and shared with third parties for advertising opportunities, in some cases.
But, Hammersley said, here’s the really dangerous thing about all of these technologies: Sure, the privacy and data protection implications are huge, but so are the barriers to solving them.
It’s a matter of semantics.
“The words privacy or data protection have become meaningless,” he said. “I can’t write about this subject anymore, because the word privacy means nothing because it means anything.”
That should matter to privacy pros, Hammersley said, because it’s up to privacy pros to change that, to bring privacy to the forefront by enabling people to talk about it in meaningful ways. And not just the elite.
“I would say the biggest challenge that faces you guys, on top of the other challenges you have,” he said, “is to redefine the critical language we use as a society to talk about these issues. We need more words for this stuff. Not just as lawyers and policymakers and the more technical end of thinking about it, but also in general conversation.”
In the UK, for example, there are mere weeks until a general election. But the word privacy isn’t being thrown around like it should given the very real threats the world now faces. And it’s not because candidates or the citizens they’re asking to put them into office don’t care. It’s because they don’t know how to talk about it in ways that resonate.
“The real challenge is to be able to have these conversations and lead these debates with language the average person can understand,” Hammersley said. “Ignite a whole new way of thinking about the world, desperately needed by everybody else on the planet. Only some people can create those words to use, and they’re all sitting in this room today.”
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