Back 2001, I bought a silver 2000 Chevrolet Cavalier. The windows operated by cable-not electrically-and that appealed to me. I’d heard stories about the expense of replacing electronic panels on vehicle dashboards after the failure of a single chip, so I preferred a stupid vehicle over a smart one.
Soon every other consumer device will be as “smart” as our cars and phones. If you haven’t heard about the “Internet of Things,” you will soon. A growing range of artifacts, from airline seats to ovens to coffee pots, are being engineered to communicate across information networks.
Years ago the U.S. Defence Department and Wal-Mart began to equip their shipping palettes with radiofrequency identification tags-chips that tracked the destination of everything from helmets and hairspray. RFID tags have been used in consumer products like running shoes and apparel, allowing manufacturers to track their inventory in real time, even after purchase.
RFID tags are yesterday’s news; digital sensors are the new big thing. As reported in the New York Times, these sensors “can measure and communicate location, movement, vibration, temperature, humidity, even chemical changes in the air.” There are “countless numbers” of them around the world, in “industrial equipment, automobiles, electrical meters and shipping crates.” Their increasing use means a torrent of information, and a growing need to interpret it on the fly. A recent report from the World Economic Forum describes data as a new economic asset. There’s gold in them thar code.
Technocrats, marketers, and state-level snoops are drooling over this rich seam of ones and zeroes. It’s no longer just about cross-referencing your comments on social networking sites with your shopping patterns, education level, political interests, friends, religious affiliation, holiday plans, medical condition and insurance status. The “Internet of Things” will include the very objects you interact with. Electronic networks are increasingly able to “see” and “hear” into the physical world through these devices. It’s hard to believe that the global rollout of smart meters won’t involve some such Panopticon scheme in the future. Gary Murphy, B.C. Hydro’s project manager for smart meters, tells me that if the technology becomes “stable enough, customers will have a choice to hook up their appliances” to some form of smart grid, although Hydro “cannot sell information to a third parties without the express permission of the customer.”
Yet smart meters are embedded in social context where information is increasingly up for grabs. A few years back, a voice recognition software project midwived by the U.S. Pentagon was spun off as a Silicon Valley startup. Apple bought Siri in 2010 and millions of iPhone users are now speaking commands into their phones and sharpening their profiles ever further through distant servers connected to supercomputers. Siri will keep on getting smarter, and the urge to merge the data with more meta-programs spat out of the classified world will undoubtedly prove to be irresistible.
The Internet is already the “greatest spying machine the world has ever seen,” according to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. The lines are becoming blurry between commercial data-mining, law enforcement snooping, illegal hacking, and covert intelligence gathering.
Two years ago, Wikileaks released a surprising document by the INDECT Consortium: the “Intelligence Information System Supporting Observation, Searching and Detection for Security of Citizens in Urban Environment.” It’s a mouthful, but in simple terms, INDECT is “working to put a human face on the billions of emails, text messages, tweets and blog posts that transit cyberspace every day; perhaps your face,” wrote Tom Burghardt in an article for globalresearch.ca. This is just one program among many, designed to get a fix on every person in the developed world not living in a tent or tree. If and when home appliances becoming part of the much-ballyhooed “Internet of Things,” does that mean being surrounded by consumer-grade snitches?
Way back in 1993, the wise journalist Barbara Ehrenreich expressed reservations about a future where “your checkbook balancing program and the sonnet you were writing in your spare time will be joyously commingling with everything from Beverly Hills 90210 to the weather report from Reykjavik.” Welcome to The Cloud, Ms. Ehrenreich.
On a final note, I’ve had to upgrade my computer hardware almost a dozen times since 2001. But my stupid old Cavalier still runs fine in its original form. http://www.olscribbler.wordpress.com
The Vancouver Courier, Mar. 16