The coming decade is shaping up to be one in which we, as consumers and citizens, will see our control over choice and privacy eroded by business and government. Some of the effects will be mere annoyances, but others will transform society. And not for the better.
This unwelcome transformation is already underway in the personal-technology sector, led by two of the most secretive companies in our industry: Apple and Google. Waiting in the wings are corporate entities eager to exploit your personal information, and government agencies watching your every step.
Welcome to the out-of-control decade.
Ah, mere hyperbole, you might say. But the thin end of the wedge has already been inserted and is being firmly hammered in:
What the iPhone and iPod touch don't have in common with earlier computers is the fact that you don't control what software you can use with them. Apple does.
To be sure, you can now choose from among 100,000 apps to load upon Apple's handhelds. But who selects the apps from which you can choose? Apple does.
And Apple's control over its App Store is deservedly notorious. Examples are legion.
So, you feel like you have control, and you feel like you have loads of choice, but actually, some very restrictive constraints have been imposed. Ultimately, a lot of choices have been taken away from you, but you can't see that because of all the apparent choice you do have. Even though a lot of the "choice" you have is things like 57 different "apps" that make farting noises.
And remember how this started off: Apple were adamant that this was all to make sure that the iPhone was not exposed to security risks.
And then there's the other, "do no evil" corporate:
The world's largest online ad merchant and search provider has already begun its efforts to move apps and files off your machine and into its data centers. To be sure, its Google Apps suite provides cost-effective convenience, but to take advantage of its benefits you need to relinquish control of your content.
Meanwhile, with roughly 70 per cent of today's online search market, Google is well on its way to knowing everything about what you're looking for online, and its AdSense and DoubleClick services inform the search giant which ad-enabled pages you've visited. Add to that Mountain View's recent decision to implement what it calls its Google Public DNS, and your web habits are both trackable and storable.
And as Google's search and ad market share grows, it controls more of what you see on the web.
Google knows what you're looking at. They always flannel when asked about your privacy, which leads me to suspect that they probably can identify pretty much anything that anyone has ever searched for by IP address. And they've shown themselves to be pretty compliant about accommodating governments like the Chinese.
And then there are the local practitioners of data collection, like Nectar and Tesco. They can tell people when and where you bought groceries and petrol, what you bought, whether you're eating healthy food, whether you've inadvertently bought the ingredients for a home made bomb (even if you bought them over the course of several months!)
And just to tie it all up with a nice bow comes the "internet of things", which doesn't sound scary at all:
Today, the internet is essentially a computing and communications space. During the next decade, a vast array of embedded-internet devices will hop aboard what was once jocularly referred to as the infobahn.
Be they supermarket barcode scanners, electronic toll collectors, ID-card readers, home refrigerators, smart electrical meters, healthcare devices, or whatever, being internet-connected these devices will all potentially be able to talk amongst themselves in the next decade's omniscient cloud, sharing data while cross-checking usage patterns.
All that data taken together will paint a highly detailed picture of you, your whereabouts, diet, health status, purchasing patterns, and lifestyle. And in some hands - say, those at the end of the long arm of the law or those clenched into an iron fist - that information could be used against you.
Don't get us wrong. You might feel perfectly comfortable with your life being an open book, agreeing instead with Google CEO Eric Schmidt's peculiar notions of privacy. As he recently told CNBC. "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place."
The operant word in Schmidt's smug statement is "anyone." He assumes a benevolent, paternalist "anyone" who's just like you and me, and keeps us good folks safe by watching out for terrorists, pedophiles, and other odious "thems". In Schmidt's world, there's a "them" and an "us".
If only life were that simple. It isn't.
The definition of "them" is a highly mutable one. Here in the United States, citizens out of step with the dominant political philosophy have been regularly designated as "them," and subjected to both extra-legal and legal-but-selective scrutiny - think of the McCarthy years, the late 1960s, and the post-9/11 hysteria, for example.
A patchwork of legal protections currently exists to protect against the unfettered tracking of such digital droppings as your location, buying practices, financial dealings, and health records. Although that protective shield is in clear need of consolidation and strengthening, it exists. Today, at least.
But data is an increasingly valuable commodity. And wherever there's value to be found, there's money to be made - and that money will fund an army of lobbyists to fiscally twist pliant lawmaking arms to weaken those protections.
The phrase "increasing shareholder value" is a talisman of almost religious power these days, matched only in its magical inarguability by its working-class mirror mantra of "job creation". Expect both of those incantations to crop up in data-deregulation debates during the out-of-control 2010s, no matter which political party is in power.
Information about you is worth money. Big money. But to take an even darker view, it might be worth your life.
Come a significant breach in public security - a "9/11 redux", if you will - and data safeguards will evaporate. Poof. Faced with an existential threat - whether real, imagined, or trumped up - the Schmidt philosophy will rule, and personal privacy and protection will dissolve.
Big business and governments will wind up with the means to fuck you over completely, all in the name of "convenience" and "security". It's difficult to counter this:
- A simple place to start is to chuck away your Nectar card and Club Card along with any other "loyalty" card you may have*.
- Start paying for things with cash again.
- Use a mix of different search engines and only use Google as a last resort.
- Don't use Google Chrome.
- Consider using a proxy server like HideMyAss or SwissVPN (the Swiss still care about data privacy!)
It's a big ask and it means you have to change your habits. It's also not going to protect you completely, but it will make it more difficult for people to piece "you" together. But if privacy matters to you at all, do it now, so that it doesn't look suspicious in the future.
It probably will already look suspicious now.
*Loyalty cards are the cheapest way for a business to model and influence your buying habits.