The Year of Being Watched

The FBI is reading David Petraeus' email, Apple wants to help you Find My Phone, and your browser knows what kind of underwear you prefer. Welcome to the new paradigm of privacy - there isn't any.

Remember back in the day when, if you weren’t at home, the phone would just ring and ring? Maybe it would finally go to the answering machine or maybe the person would just try back later. Fast forward a few years, and big brother knows which one of Baskin Robins’ 31 flavors you chose because your iPhone has a secret app designed to detect the difference in the level of corn syrup between Mint Chocolate Chip and Chunky Monkey, and report it to the government to be used against you in a court of law.

Communication, especially Internet-based, is an amazing thing. It saves lives, makes money, and brings disparate forces together for the common good. But there’s a dark side to everything and, in this day and age, that dark side comes with a Lord of the Rings-style giant, fiery eyeball watching everything we do, day in and day out.

For the business community, this represents the ultimate double-edge sword. I think it’s fair to say we’re better off today than we were when IBM was making cash registers and adding machines. But boy could those guys keep a secret. There was no Internet on which to air one’s dirty laundry, no prying eyes to intercept executive correspondence, and no micro-trading to eviscerate one’s stock price twelve milliseconds after the publication of an erroneous report detailing the cancellation of parts to build the world’s most successful product (I’m talking to you, Apple).

One day, perhaps, we’ll find a happy medium between always-on and blissfully ignorant. But today’s world of commerce is based on the kind of geo-located, instantly-messaged, gotta-have-it-yesterday mentally that breeds more privacy-busting technology in one day than J Edgar Hoover managed to cram into his entire career.

Gadgets, wonderful gadgets.

A few weeks ago I attended the famous Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas to catch a glimpse of the future. I was dazzled by all the smart TVs offering the most amazing cloud-based functionality. But I couldn’t help thinking about the reams of data half a dozen different corporations were going to collect regarding my private TV watching habits.

I also saw a tiny device that could attach to anything or anyone, with one purpose and one purpose only: to locate that anything or anyone via GPS, wherever it happened to be at the time. Helpful? Could be. A little weird? Yep.

Finally, I visited a booth displaying a wristband designed to measure your vital bio-rhythms, the number of steps you take in a day, your location, temperature, level of stress and more. The wristband, once it knows your favorite color and the name of your brother’s goldfish, communicates all this information to a nearby cell phone, which then publishes all your stats to a nameless, faceless cloud server for processing and data mining. Is George Orwell spinning around in his grave right now or what?

As I was considering the implications of this potentially insidious device, I ran into an executive I never really liked from a company you’ve likely heard of but which shall remain nameless. His take on this device: “Hey, that’s great, I should put one of those on all my employees.”


KJ is a bass player and singer-songwriter (like Sting, only taller); co-founder of Sessionville; and all too fond of sushi and Doritos®.