Moral Low Ground

Civil Liberties

Privacy is Dead, Harvard Professors Tell Davos Audience

RoboBees, developed by Harvard University robotics researchers, are capable of tethered flight. (Photo: Wikipedia)

RoboBees, developed by Harvard University robotics researchers, are capable of tethered flight. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Privacy as we know it is dead, never to return, a group of concerned Harvard University professors told a session of the global business, political and technology elite at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Agence France-Presse reports the Harvard professors attending the four-day meeting in the swank Swiss ski resort painted a bleak vision of a near-future in which mosquito-sized drones fly around stealing samples of your DNA for use by the government or insurance companies and department stores know from your buying habits that you’re pregnant even before your family does.

Just how near is this dystopian future?

“Welcome to today. We’re already in that world,” said Margo Seltzer, a Harvard professor of computer science. “Privacy as we knew it in the past is no longer feasible… How we conventionally think of privacy is dead.”

Harvard genetics researcher Sophia Roosth said it is “inevitable” that your personal genetic information will become increasingly public as well.

“We are at the dawn of the age of genetic McCarthyism,” said Roosth, a reference to the aggressive anti-communist crusade led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) in the early 1950s.

Seltzer predicted that invasions of privacy will “become more pervasive.”

“It’s not whether this is going to happen, it’s already happening… We live in a surveillance state today,” she asserted.

Distinguished political science professor Joseph Nye discussed efforts of governments to access all encrypted communications in the name of national security.

“Governments are talking about putting in back doors for communication so that terrorists can’t communicate without being spied on. The problem is that if governments can do that, so can the bad guys,” he said. “Are you more worried about big brother or your nasty little cousin?”

But even as they warned of the threats to personal privacy, the professors stressed that the benefits of technology far outweigh the dangers.

Those micro-drones Seltzer warned about? They could, she forecast, be used to go into Ebola wards and “zap the germs.”

“The technology is there, it is up to us how to use it,” she said, adding that, “by and large, tech has done more good than harm.”

At a separate Davos session on artificial intelligence (AI), Rethink Robotics chairman Rodney Brooks cited the ability of Google Maps to predict a user’s destination as an example of how people are increasingly accepting an erosion of their privacy as the price to pay for living in a hyper-connected world.

“At first, I found that spooky and kind of scary,” Brooks told his audience. “Then I realized, actually, it’s kind of useful.”

“I trade my privacy for the convenience,” added tech entrepreneur Anthony Goldbloom, a representative of what experts call the ‘Google generation,’ one with much lower privacy expectations than previous cohorts. “Privacy is not something that worries me.”

“Anyway, people often behave better when they have the sense that their actions are being watched,” he added.

The privacy doomsayers’ predictions seem to be confirmed by simply glancing at today’s headlines. Massive government surveillance has been revealed at every level. Edward Snowden’s leaks revealed the National Security Agency snooped on billions of phone and electronic communications, targeting everyone from the Pope and friendly heads of state toWorld of Warcraft gamers. Federal, state and local authorities are using IMSI catchers, or “Stingrays,” which mimic cell phone towers to monitor Americans’ mobile conversations. Law enforcement agencies at all levels use cutting-edge radar devices that let them ‘see’ inside your home. The Department of Homeland Security wants to track every vehicle license plate in America. The list goes on.

Americans are increasingly accepting of the growing intrusions into their private lives. Many people accept the stringent, sometimes invasive, airport security screenings as the new post-9/11 reality. Those algorithm-driven ads that suggest purchasing something you recently Googled are alarming fewer and fewer folks. There is a general sense of resignation that you’d better watch what you say or do online, or on your smartphone, or even in the privacy of your own home, because you never know who might be watching, or listening, or recording your every move, both in the flesh and on the web.

The question of whether or not privacy is dead, then, is perhaps best answered by public perception. As definitions and expectations of privacy continue to evolve, so will the public’s response to what today’s advocates call violations of privacy. If people don’t view mosquito-sized drones sucking their DNA as a threat or an invasion, are they really intrusive?

A decade ago, many of us would have been aghast at how today’s Facebook and other social media users voluntarily surrender what surely would have then been considered a frightening amount of their personal data. Today, that’s just chalked up as the price of doing business in an increasingly connected — and monitored — world.

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