The next big national intelligence debate

June 7, 2013

My iPhone keeps track of everywhere I go and everyone that I call. It knows when I sleep, when I wake, and how active I am. It has the names and numbers of all of my friends and access to all of my emails, social networks, and even to the health information collected by apps that I’ve installed.

A sign stands outside the National Security Administration (NSA) campus on Thursday, June 6, 2013, in Fort Meade, Md.(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
A sign stands outside the National Security Administration (NSA) campus on Thursday, June 6, 2013, in Fort Meade, Md.(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Google has a one-up on my iPhone. It reads my emails before I do and knows what I am thinking by analyzing what I search for on the Internet and which Web sites I visit. It “knows” what other people think about me. If my friend and noted futurist Ray Kurzweil succeeds in his mission at Google, it will also understand my wants and needs. It will be able to predict what I want to search for, where I want to go, and what I want to eat. It will understand how my brain thinks and know me better than my wife does.

Apple and Google would make Big Brother jealous. Yet we voluntarily offer these companies, and others, our deeply personal information because it makes our lives better.

We can debate whether government access to our phone records and web data is making us safer or obliterating our civil liberties.  But the reality is that in the tech era, which we have already entered, what we used to think of as privacy is becoming a relic.

Before we know it, products like Google Glass will record everything we see and hear. Expect cameras and sensors to be everywhere in public places and office buildings and on drones. Face recognition technology will identify and track us.

Even our appliances will be connected to the Internet and “talk” to each other. Speaking at and In-Q-Tel event last year, CIA Director David Petraeus said:

Items of interest will be located, identified, monitored, and remotely controlled through technologies such as radio-frequency identification, sensor networks, tiny embedded servers, and energy harvesters—all connected to the next-generation Internet using abundant, low cost, and high-power computing—the latter now going to cloud computing, in many areas greater and greater supercomputing, and, ultimately, heading to quantum computing. In practice, these technologies could lead to rapid integration of data from closed societies and provide near-continuous, persistent monitoring of virtually anywhere we choose.

In other words, there will be nowhere to hide. There will be all sorts of data collected about us from many sources.

The real debate we need to have centers around what is being done with these data. We will readily allow Google to track our searches, learn our likes and dislikes, and incorporate the advice of our friends so that it can recommend where we travel or what restaurants we choose. But should these data also be used to market to us? Should Google be allowed to share our data with third parties—and governments? And then the bigger question: how do we reign in government? We can’t stop the gathering of data, but we can surely limit its use. We can also put limits on the time that tech companies and governments are allowed to keep these data.

That is the real battle that needs to be fought.

I personally worry less about data that I know is being collected than what is being collected surreptitiously. Hackers, for example, who have the ability to turn on the camera and microphone on our computers without our knowing it. The Chinese government is hacking into government and corporate networks to download every piece of information that it can. The data that the U.S. government is gathering is likely being used to protect the public and many tragedies may have been prevented. But the Chinese are using our data to give their companies a competitive edge and find ways to disable the U.S. infrastructure. Organized crime is reaping billions by hacking banks and robbing from individuals. That is what terrifies me more than U.S. government snooping.

Vivek Wadhwa is Vice President of Innovation and Research at Singularity University and Arthur & Toni Rembe Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University. His other academic appointments include Harvard, Duke and Emory Universities as well as the University of California Berkeley.

READ: Files show U.S. mining Internet data; firms deny giving access

Vivek Wadhwa is a fellow at Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University, director of research at Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke, and distinguished fellow at Singularity University. His past appointments include Harvard Law School, University of California Berkeley, and Emory University.
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