I was recently shown a video demonstrating a new technology product; I won’t state the name of the company that manufactured it, however, I can say that it’s very likely that anyone reading this article online will interact with them in the near future.
The product is amazing: it is a small speaker that responds to voice commands. You can ask it what the weather will be like, how bad the traffic on the roads will be, and to play music.
At this point, I was intrigued; I could easily see myself buying one.
The scene shifted: children were using the speaker. There was nothing sinister about it, per se: the children wanted to play a game of musical chairs, and the speaker obliged. At first, I was again intrigued but then I felt a sense of disquiet.
Because of the speaker’s small size and pleasing design, it’s easy to think of it as being just another appliance; it looks unobtrusive. But step back a moment: it’s constantly connected to the internet. The “musical chairs” feature indicates that it would register the voices of our children and know the games they play. That information would then be streamed back to a large corporation. Yes, we get a useful, versatile speaker: but at what cost?
Our country has never truly had a public debate about privacy, specifically, what it means in the 21st century. Many of us are willing to trade off the advanced services we receive in exchange for personal information. Social media knows where I live, my musical tastes, my marital status, and who my relations are. Search engines know what I’ve looked up. My mobile phone transmits my current location. We accept this as normal, if we bother to think about it at all. For now, we endure tailored marketing messages in return.
However, as the demonstration of the speaker indicates, the boundaries are being pushed ever outward: the next generation could very well have their entire lives catalogued online. Because of the seamless, friendly way that it’s done, they will not be inclined to object. But imagine this: let’s say that insurance companies had access to that data, and thus could grant or deny coverage on that basis. Insurance companies already offer apps to track how you drive, ostensibly to lower your bill.
There are many urgent issues to be addressed in Westminster: getting tech giants to pay their taxes is one. I will be urging my colleagues that tax transparency should be accompanied by clarity about how our vital data is gathered and used. We should have the right to put boundaries on this; we should openly discuss what the right to privacy will mean in the future.
Please note: Police Superintendent Andy Gipp and I are hosting an Open Forum at St. John the Baptist Church on 13th October at 7pm. Please attend and join in the discussion.