The Argument for the Modern Luddite
The Oxford dictionary defines a Luddite as a “person opposed to increased industrialization or new technology.” However, according to Wikipedia, the Luddite movement of the early 19th century was organized by workers threatened with professional extinction by the development of new, automated technology. Their goal “was to gain a better bargaining position with their employers. They were not afraid of technology per se, but were ‘labour strategists’…."
It may be time to resurrect the notion, but with a modern twist. It may be time to step away from technology in an effort to prevent the extinction of our privacy.
A Two-Edged Sword
Technology is awesome. We now hold more computing power in the phones we carry in our pockets than was available to the guidance computers in NASA’s Apollo missions. We have near-instantaneous access to just about any information we need, from price comparisons, to avoiding traffic snarls, to texting with friends around the world. Our sleeping, eating, shopping, driving and fitness habits are logged and data-sliced to determine how to optimize our life experience. We don’t even need locally-installed software – or even hard drives – to generate our personal documents, since both apps and data storage are now “in the cloud.”
For lack of a more sophisticated analysis, it’s just freaking cool.
Of course, the flip side is that we are not the only one collecting and analyzing the data that makes up our lives. The “Internet of Things” (IoT) – smart TVs, video game consoles, children’s toys, and even our computers’ browser – employ “always on” technology to listen for commands. That listening doesn’t discriminate regarding what is heard, and that input is considered “data” which is now owned – and can be shared – by the product manufacturer. Further, we’ve well established that smart devices store cookies and share the data collected by them without interaction, permission, or even knowledge.
We can only speculate on what is being collected and shared by the providers of apps we use to research our daily lives. Think about what we can collect. Multiple apps are available for barcode scanning, giving you the opportunity to price-compare for every purchase you make – and compiling a list of the products that attract our interests. Insurance companies are offering discounts for those of us willing to plug a “black box” into our vehicles, providing them with evidence of our good driving habits – as well as behaviors that are frowned upon. It might not only be speeding and abrupt lane-changing that attracts attention, of course. State and federal legislators have repeatedly floated proposals to mandate a “driving tax” based on recorded mileage. The immensely popular FitBit allows you to voluntarily track all your activity and every morsel of food you put in your body. How long before legislation is proposed, requiring the collection and cross-referencing of this data to provide a sort of “health credit score” to determine how much you should pay for your health insurance (which government has already mandated you MUST purchase)? Might it eventually become a condition of employment?
Now that we’ve considered the kind of data that is being voluntarily collected, let’s consider how often data is being intercepted or even flat-out seized by our government. No less a figure than the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, admitted that intelligence agencies are using the Internet of Things to perform warrantless surveillance (and even engage in recruiting) on a mass, dragnet style scale. Secure email provider Lavabit was driven to cease operations under pressure from FBI demands to turn over its private keys, unlocking the private emails of all its users. And, of course, Apple is now in the sights of the Department of Justice, which has implied a threat to seize the company’s source code for its operating system. In fact, there’s so much concern regarding government surveillance and data seizure among small technology companies – the entrepreneurs that drive new markets and inventions – “that the European Union could make it illegal to do business with American companies as long as the data is stored in America. That’s possibly too expensive for most of the companies in the trade association, making them unable to transact in Europe.”
Since we have already seen our government both steal data without permission and use legal threats to acquire what has been collected by others, what do you think will become of your daily activity, caloric intake, and shopping habits?
Of course, this doesn’t even delve into data theft by run-of-the-mill criminals. Hackers have breached databases maintained by commercial entities from Target to Home Depot. They’ve also hit our own government’s “secure” databases used by the Office of Personnel Management, the Treasury Department, and even the Department of Defense. You could try to encrypt your communications and transactions against theft by hackers, but that encryption may be compromised by government snoops – who will then lose your data to those same hackers, due to their ineptitude. Further, encryption itself is becoming a corporate liability because those "criminal and threat actors" are using SSL/TLS technology to hide malware attacks! Some companies, now fearing both running afoul of federal prosecutors and exposing themselves to civil liability for not protecting you from encrypted attacks, are even choosing to abandon support of encryption altogether – leaving us exposed to both criminals and the government (though I repeat myself).
It seems like a no-win situation. For the sake of convenience and the “neat factor,” we will soon reach a point where we will lose privacy entirely. Either the government will render encryption illegal or ineffective, leaving us open to government surveillance and criminal data theft... or encryption will render malware virtually undetectable... leaving us open to government surveillance and criminal data theft.
So maybe, for our own sake, we should consider taking a step back from all this convenience. It may not yet be time to take a sledgehammer to your smartphone or to Gitmo your FitBit, but maybe it is time to take a critical use at the cost/benefit ratio of modern technology. Maybe, for the sake of our privacy, we can suck it up and deal with missing that 10% off Groupon, or hitting that annoying traffic jam, or waiting until we get home to make idle chit-chat with our friends (and maybe even – gasp! – using a landline to do that). Perhaps we should even consider things as radical as paying cash, remembering things and writing on paper (of course, cursive could be considered “the new encryption”).
Maybe it’s time to beta Luddite v2.0 and see if we can improve our bargaining position.