The trouble with technology, especially it seems computer technology, is that it keeps “improving”. I’ve written before about the ethics of the job that we as software architects do and whether or not we should always accept what we do without asking questions, not least of which should be, is this a technology step too far that I am building or being asked to build?
Three articles have caught my eye this week which have made me ponder this question again.
The first is from the technology watcher and author Nicholas Carr who talks about the Glass Collective, an an investment syndicate made up of three companies: Google Ventures, Andreessen Horowitz and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers whose collective aim is to provide seed funding to entrepreneurs in the Glass ecosystem to help jump start their ideas.For those not in the know about Glass it is, according to the Google blog, all about “getting technology out of the way” and has the aim of building technology that is “seamless, beautiful and empowering“. Glasses first manifestation is to be Internet-connected glasses that take photos, record video and offer hands-free Internet access right in front of a users’ eyes.
Clearly the type of augmented reality that Glass opens up could have huge educational benefits (think of walking around a museum or art gallery and getting information on what you are looking at piped right to you as you look at different works of art) as well as very serious privacy implications. For another view on this read the excellent blog post from my IBM colleague Rick Robinson on privacy in digital cities.
In his blog post Carr refers to a quote from Marshall McLuhan, made a half century ago and now seeming quite prescient:
Once we have surrendered our senses and nervous systems to the private manipulation of those who would try to benefit by taking a lease on our eyes and ears and nerves, we don’t really have any rights left.
The next thing to catch my eye (or actually several thousand things) was around the whole sorry tale of the Boston bombings. This post in particular from the Wall Street Journal discusses the role of Boston’s so called fusion center that “helps investigators scour for connections among potential suspects, by mining hundreds of law enforcement sources around the region, ranging from traffic violations, to jail records and criminal histories, along with public data like property records.”
Whilst I doubt anyone would question the validity of using data in this way to track down people that have performed atrocities such as we saw in Boston, it does highlight just how much data is now collected on us and about us, much of which we have no control over of broadcasting to the world.
Finally, on a much lighter note, we learn that the contraceptive maker Durex has released their “long distance, sexy time fundawear“. I’ll let you watch the first live trial video of this at your leisure (warning, not entirely work safe) but let’s just say here that it adds a whole new dimension to stroking the screen on your smartphone. I guess this one has no immediate privacy issues (providing the participants don’t wear their Google Glass at the same time as playing in their fundawear at least) it does raise some interesting questions about how much we will let technology impinge on the most intimate part of our lives.
So where does this latest foray of mine into digital privacy take us and what conclusions, if any, can we draw? Back in 2006 IBM Fellow and Chief Scientist Jeff Jonas posted a comment on his blog called Responsible Innovation: Designing for Human Rights in which he asks two questions: what if we are creating technologies that go in the face of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and what if systems are designed without the essential characteristics needed to support basic privacy and civil liberties principles?
Jeff argues that if technologies could play a role in any of the arrest, detention, exile, interference, attacks or deprivation mentioned in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights then they must support disclosure of the source upon which such invasions are predicated. He suggests that systems that could affect one’s privacy or civil liberties should have a number of design characteristics built in that allow for some level of auditability as well as ensuring accuracy of the data they hold. Such characteristics as, every data point is associated to its data source and every data point is associated to its author etc. Given this was written in 2006 when Facebook was only two years old and still largely confined to use in US universities this is a hugely prescient and thoughtful piece of insight (which is why Jeff is an IBM Fellow of course).
So, there’s an idea! New technologies, when they come along should, be examined to ensure they have built in safeguards that mean such rights as are granted to us all in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are not infringed or taken away from us. How would this be done and, more importantly of course, what bodies or organisations would we empower to ensure such safeguards were both effective and enforceable? No easy or straightforward answers here but certainly a topic for some discussion I believe.