Big Brother? No, Big Mother is watching you!
The PNet will get you if you don’t watch out!
Big Brother is, well, yesterday – it is almost a quarter of a century since 1984 didn’t happen.
Today, the Internet is a serious contender for the post of social, even personal, controller – a bit friendlier, perhaps, than Georgie O’s dark vision, but just as controlling. Big brothers never did have the control, the power over us, that mothers have had. Mothers may trigger all sorts of warm fuzzy feelings, but they still make you put on a warm coat and button up and meddle in your personal affairs, fully assured of their divine right to do so. The news is that the Internet is becoming Big Mother!
The Internet has more than a billion users – almost a sixth of the world’s population. It is growing so fast that, soon, the pulls and pokes we use to stretch its capacity and step up its speed will not be enough.
Concerned about this growth, the American National Science Foundation (NSF) is working on two projects to find and test contenders for the future net. GENI, the Global Environment for Networking Innovations project, is building a highly advanced test-bed for new protocols and applications. The FIND project, Future Internet Design, is seeking a totally new vision, a new structure, so the Internet will be able to handle the coming growth, new types of traffic and increasingly sophisticated applications.
They know, we know, the Internet will grow – the number of users, devices and applications will multiply – we just do not know exactly how. Billions, hundreds of billions, of new addresses will be needed.
One thing, though, is certain – an extraordinary variety of communications and sensor chips will be embedded in almost everything from clothing to cream pots to the chair you sit on, and the best part of the traffic on the Net will come from things talking to things, not me talking to you. Surely, scarily, many of the devices, and much of the traffic will be devoted to watching Big Mother’s sons and daughters, checking on them, telling them what to do and feeding them with non-stop advice about how to go about their lives, how to deal with their business and, especially, about buying, buying and buying.
One of the things the Internet now does best, although little noted by most people, is facilitate data collection. The Internet is the greatest data collection tool of all times. By ‘mining’ Internet data, companies routinely build profiles of users. Miners might know your shoe size, who your friends are, your credit line, the banks you use, your job, your favourite entertainment, your professional interests, your taste – or lack thereof – in porn, where you dine, whether you like steroid pumped beef or organic water lilies and, depending where you buy, the size, colour and cut of your underwear. Companies mining Internet data know things about you that even your spouse and mother do not know.
Spyware, keyloggers, phishing and pharming scams, profiling or tracking, cookies, browsers, search engines, ISPs, instant messages, Internet communities, email, blogs, and social networks or communities, discussion groups, workplace surveillance, ‘presence’ based systems, location-based systems, RFIDs and many others, all contribute to the disclosure, the betrayal, of your personal data. Some of this can help you in hidden ways, make your online experience more pleasant and productive, and does not threaten your privacy in any essential way. Other information is collected for statistical analysis and is not stored in any way that connects it to its origin. Overall, though, much more is known about you than you know, than you would like. At best, this information will only be used for statistics, sales and annoyance; at worst it will be used for fraud and crime.
This will only get worse as the Internet grows and data collection schemes become more sophisticated. Unfortunately, the sort of privacy we expect in the ‘real’ world is only precariously, if at all, guaranteed by law, practice or custom in the virtual realm. It will take years before society, technology and legislation come up with a workable solution and put it to use.
Invasion of privacy can be passive, active or both. The sort of spying and data collection we usually think of is mostly passive, but how will we react, when things, and not your mother, start telling you what to do, as well as how, where and when to do it? Pop-ups are an irritating form of invasion of privacy. Like telemarketing, they force themselves upon you. But pop-ups are just the beginning; they are low on the intrusion scale. New types of intrusive Internet-dependant technology are just beginning to arrive on the market; many others are sure to follow.
Refrigerators that read RFID (radio frequency identification) tags on food packages and tell you what you need to buy can be helpful, but connect them to the Net and they will bombard you with offers from all five butchers in your neighbourhood, supermarkets or even home-delivery fast food chains. Would you like boots that say, ‘wear me, it’s raining’, or clothes that say, ‘wash me at Super-Slosh Laundry’? How about clothes that ‘speak’ to each other and point out your bad taste, letting you know they do not match?
Within a few years, there won’t be a product maker or service provider from doorknob maker to dog walker that has not at least considered connecting themselves – via embedded chips and the Internet – to the consumer. Services and utilities will outdo themselves, giving canned advice, pushing their offerings. Some items will have displays, others will speak out, but most will transmit their messages to nearby computers, televisions or other devices. My guess is that the biggest of Big Mother’s little helpers – the bearer of sad tidings from all those little high tech spies – will be the Bluetooth enabled mobile phone.
There are some 2.6 billion mobile phones in use today; about ten per cent of them are already high speed, 3G, models and a great many have Bluetooth. ‘Mobile’ is the world’s most widespread digital platform; more than one third of the world’s people have them. Mobile may be only the ‘fourth screen’, after the cinema, television and PC, but it is now the first voice – the world’s greatest communication system, always with you, always at hand, always there to let you know what to buy, what to wear, when to change oil, visit the doctor, flush, wash or play. Mobile devices will soon become the privacy invaders’ carrier of choice. Advertisers know that soon, “if you are not on mobile, you won’t be relevant”.
Advertising, followed by gambling, adult entertainment, music downloads, social networking, SMS/TV interactivity, not necessarily in that order, are the greatest revenue drivers on the Internet. As soon as the ‘Internet of things’ hooks up to the mobile Net on a wide scale, though, this could change drastically. Let’s call this new hook-up the Pestering Net, or PNet. The PNet could be the biggest revenue driver yet.
The PNet will generate a host of business opportunities. I would not be surprised if one of the biggest opportunities was for hackers and software that can turn the darn thing off.
Let’s hear it from Big Mother, ‘Wash behind your ears’, ‘button up your coat’ – I bet you can’t wait for the PNet.
The Connect-World Global Visionaries, Global Visions 2006 will be published this month. This edition of Connect-World will commemorate the ITU Telecom World 2006 event – Hong Kong, December 4 to 8, 2006. Connect-World is an official media sponsor of the event.
In addition to our normal global mailing, this issue will be distributed to all those attending the ITU Telecom World 2006 event as well as to a select list of world leaders, to the ranking executives of the world’s largest companies including the Fortune 1000, to government authorities, and to international institutions. This issue will also be available on our website to all other interested readers throughout the world.
The theme of this edition, complementing the Telecom World 2006 theme, is Digital lifelines – building the digital world.
Connect-World, from its beginning, has dedicated itself to discussing the impact of ICT upon people, regions and societies throughout the world. Issue by issue, for the last ten years, Connect-World has documented digital lifestyles. The daily routine of living in a digital world is quite different in trendy Tokyo, London, New York, or along the beaches of Rio de Janeiro than it is in rural areas around the world, in city slums or in the least developed regions of each continent. What digital technology signifies in each of these regions is vastly different. In one city, a mobile phone is a teenager’s passport to social acceptance, a credit card, a TV, a way to invite friends to a party. In other parts of the world, even the simplest mobile device is a family’s lifeline – the promise of a brighter future. This issue of Connect-World will be devoted to the building of the digital world – in all its guises.