The constant onslaught of new technology is making our lives more public and trackable than ever, which understandably scares a lot of people. Part of the dilemma is how we interpret the right to privacy using centuries-old ideals handed down to us by our forbearers. I think the 21st century idea of privacy — like so many other taken-for-granted concepts — may need a revamp.
When James Madison wrote the Fourth Amendment — which helped legally establish US privacy ideals and protection from unreasonable search and seizure — he surely wasn’t imagining Elon Musk’s neural lace, artificial intelligence, the internet, or virtual reality. Madison wanted to make sure government couldn’t antagonize its citizens and overstep its governmental authority, as monarchies and the Church had done for centuries in Europe.
For many decades, the Fourth Amendment has mostly done its job. But privacy concerns in the 21st century go way beyond search and seizure issues: Giant private companies like Google, Apple, and Facebook are changing our sense of privacy in ways the government never could. And many of us have plans to continue to use more new tech; one day, many of us will use neural prosthetics and brain implants. These brain-to-machine interfaces will likely eventually lead to the hive mind, where everyone can know each other’s precise whereabouts and thoughts at all times, because we will all be connected to each other through the cloud. Privacy, broadly thought of as essential to a democratic society, might disappear.
“While privacy has long been considered a fundamental right, it has never been an inherent right,” Jeremy Rifkin, an American economic and social theorist, wrote in The Zero Marginal Cost Society. “Indeed, for all of human history, until the modern era, life was lived more or less publicly, as befits most species on Earth.”
The question of whether privacy needs to change is really a question of functionality. Is privacy actually useful for individuals or for society? Does having privacy make humanity better off? Does privacy raise the standard of living for the average person?
In some ways, these questions are futile. Technological innovation is already calling the shots, and considering the sheer amount of new tech being bought and used, most people seem content with the more public, transparent world it’s ushering in. Hundreds of millions of people willingly use devices and tech that can monitor them, including personal home assistants, credit cards, smartphones, and even pacemakers (in Ohio, a suspect’s own pacemaker data will be used in the trial against him.) Additionally, cameras in cities are ubiquitous; tens of thousands of fixed cameras are recording every second of the day, making a walk outside one’s own home a trackable affair. Even my new car knows where I’m at and calls me on the car intercom if it feels it’s been hit or something suspicious is happening.
Because of all this, in the not so distant future — perhaps as little as 15 years — I imagine a society where everybody can see generally where anyone else is at any moment. Many companies already have some of this ability through the tech we own, but it’s not in the public’s hands yet to control.
For many, this constant state of being monitored is concerning. But consider that much of our technology can also look right back into the government’s world with our own spying devices and software. It turns out Big Brother isn’t so big if you’re able to track his every move.
The key with such a reality is to make sure government is engulfed by ubiquitous transparency too. Why shouldn’t our government officials be required to be totally visible to us all, since they’ve chosen public careers? Why shouldn’t we always know what a police officer is saying or doing, or be able to see not only when our elected Senator meets with lobbyists, but what they say to them?
For better or worse, we can already see the beginnings of an era of in which nothing is private: WikiLeaks has its own transparency problems and has a scattershot record of releasing documents that appear to be politically motivated, but nonetheless has exposed countless political emails, military wires, and intel documents that otherwise would have remained private or classified forever. There is an ongoing battle about whether police body camera footage should be public record. Politicians and police are being videotaped by civilians with cell phones, drones, and planes. Use of AI facial recognition, which I support, is one most complex legal questions of our time.
But it’s not just government that’s a worry. It’s also important that people can track companies, like Google, Apple, and Facebook that create much of the software that tracks individuals and the public. This is easier said than done, but a vibrant start-up culture and open-source technology is the antidote. There will always be people and hackers that insist on tracking the trackers, and they will also lead the entrepreneurial crusade to keep big business in check with new ways of monitoring their behavior. There are people hacking and cracking big tech’s products to see what their capabilities are and to uncover surreptitious surveillance and security vulnerabilities. This spirit must extend to monitoring all of big tech’s activities. Massive openness must become a two-way street.
And I’m hopeful it will, if disappearing privacy trends continue their trajectory, and if technology continues to connect us omnipresently (remember the hive mind?). We will eventually come to a moment in which all communications and movements are public by default.
In such a world, everyone will be forced to be more honest, especially Washington. No more backdoor special interest groups feeding money to our lawmakers for favors. And there would be fewer incidents like Governor Chris Christie believing he can shut down public beaches and then use them himself without anyone finding out. The recent viral photo — taken by a plane overhead — of him bathing on a beach he personally closed is a strong example of why a non-private society has merit.
If no one can hide, then no one can do anything wrong without someone else knowing. That may allow a better, more efficient society with more liberties than the protection privacy accomplishes.
This type of future, whether through cameras, cell phone tracking, drones, implants, and a myriad of other tech could literally shape up America, quickly stopping much crime. Prisons would eventually likely mostly empty, and dangerous neighborhoods would clean up — instead of putting people in jail, we can track them with drones until their sentence is up. Our internet of things devices will call the cops when domestic violence disputes arrive (it was widely reported — but not confirmed — that a smarthome device called the police when a man was allegedly brandishing a gun and beating his girlfriend. Such cases will eventually become commonplace.)
A society lacking privacy would have plenty of liberty-creating phenomena too, likely ushering in an era similar to the 60s where experimental drugs, sex, and artistic creation thrived. Openness, like the vast internet itself, is a facilitator of freedom and personal liberties. A less private society means a more liberal one where unorthodox individuals and visionaries — all who can no longer be pushed behind closed doors — will be accepted for who or what they are. In short, we do not need more walls to thrive.
Like the Heisenberg principle, observation, changes reality. So does a lack of barriers between you and others. A radical future like this would bring an era of freedom and responsibility back to humanity and the individual. We are approaching an era where the benefits of a society that is far more open and less private will lead to a safer, diverse, more empathetic world. I call this phenomenon the Privacy Enigma.
We should be cautious, but not afraid. We should embrace the new transparency.
A version of this article was first published in Vice.