A Penny For Your Thoughts
"You have zero privacy now. Get over it."
- Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy, January 1999, at the launch of Jini.
At the close of the twentieth century more than six billion people live on the planet Earth, some 250,000 of them are in flight miles above its surface at any given moment and there are a small but constant contingent living in low Earth orbit. It is an age of miracles and wonders, stark contrasts and increasing global connectivity. It may even be said that the beginnings of a planetary nervous system are in place, the rudiments of a global consciousness forming as we watch. An ocean of data processing power is connected together twenty four hours a day, for the most part underutilized.
This century opened with a clank, powered by the steam driven engines of the Industrial Revolution and the mass manufacturing capabilities of its factories. The resulting rise in the standard of living in the industrialized nations freed up the hitherto untapped intellectual resources of their peoples and the cheap energy provided by petroleum products fueled the explosive growth of their economies. Economic forces shaped the twentieth century to the form we are familiar with today; manufacturing and resource industries concentrating in areas with low labor costs while relentless marketing drives the demand for their products.
The most precious commodity for this marketing is information about you, your lifestyle and your preferences. An amazing amount of information about you is already available and even more will soon be out there - for a price. Some of this information you yourself have given out; sometimes knowingly, and sometimes without realizing it.
If you live in a typical metropolitan area, then estimates are that you appear on ten different video cameras each day. If you use a cel phone, your location is known all the time it is switched on, whether you are making a call or not. Activated cel phones send a unique identifying signal out so phone company computers know what transmitting tower to send their calls through. Your telephone calls can be monitored at any time even if you are a law-abiding citizen using a regular phone and they often are, by the telephone company and by various intelligence agencies. This can be done without having to physically attach any devices to a phone or line.
Your credit information is available to anyone willing to pay a nominal fee for it. You can even do this online if you wish. If you use a bank's ATM card for purchases, then your bank has a record of not just the amount, but the purchase itself; invaluable information for marketers. Your local grocery store's discount card does the same thing, collecting detailed information about your purchases in exchange for fifty cents off that can of tuna. This information can then be sold to others, giving the bank or store yet another source of income. The agreement you signed to receive the card gives them the right to do this.
Data mining companies can then process this information and draw conclusions about you, your family, your neighbourhood and then sell this information to marketers. People who live in a particular postal code may all prefer a particular brand of laundry soap, for example, so the manufacturer might want to target a new product line giveaway to that area. Data miners can not only draw detailed purchasing patterns from this information and categorize it in a multitude of ways, but can also use it to predict future trends. They could very well know what your next tube of toothpaste is going to be before you do.
Ever respond to a mail-in promotion? The cereal company didn't send you that great XYZ poster because they just wanted you to buy their cereal. They also have created a list of XYZ fans, broken down into any category you can think of, which may then be combined with any other such list to provide insights which the originating consumer may even be unaware.
Then we get to the computer. Most people know that if they are using their computer to surf the web that they are leaving traces of themselves around. A web site can track an amazing number of things about the people who visit it. First, there's your IP address, the number assigned by your provider to your computer while it is online, a unique code that no other computer in the world has while you are online. It can be looked up to see where you are coming from. Then there's what web browser you are using and what Operating System is on your computer. Your screen resolution and the number of colors in your display is also detectable as is the last page you looked at before coming to a web site. So all together, a site can know for example that someone from Halifax using Chebucto Plus visited their site at 11:00 pm GMT, using Netscape 4.05 with Windows 95, an 800 x 600 screen resolution and 65,000 colors, stayed on the first page for two minutes, having come to it from a particular search engine page then went to three other pages on the site before taking off. The next site would know that you had just come from this site, or that you were using a bookmark, or what-have-you.
Your computer may also be telling more than you realize about you. Microsoft Office programs were found to be telling a unique user-related ID number to websites; Macromedia, the company behind the Shockwave browser plugin, found that under some circumstances Shockwave was sending not just information to them about the site that was using Shockwave, but also user passwords and other personal details, and Intel's Pentium III CPU chips have a unique ID number stamped into each one that can be read by remote sites, identifying that individual computer.
High resolution satellite images, once the exclusive province of security agencies, are now commercially available. A British Columbia company can sell a roofing company a photo of your house's roof for example and Canada's new RADARSAT can track an individual car from orbit no matter the cloud cover or whether it is day or night.
The sheer volume of information about you, added to constantly, is staggering. Fortunately however it is still scattered among thousands of different computers which as yet do not talk to each other. Your local video store computer doesn't know about your recent Radio Shack purchases and the local garage hasn't seen your car's infrared emissions. So you have some sense of personal privacy still because while any ten computers may each know some detail of your life, none know all the details. In Lawrence Sanders' 1970 novel The Anderson Tapes, the story of a robbery is told from the point of view of audio surveillance tapes made by different agencies for different reasons unbeknownst to each other. Each tape separately did not tell very much but taken together the robbery plans became clear. This is more or less what is happening to each of us now. Our activities are private only so long as all the pieces aren't put together.
This is not going to last. As computers become more powerful, both the ability to permanently store vast amounts of information and the ability to search through and collate it quickly become easier to do. As more computers network, more sources for the raw information become available.
And then there's something like Jini.
Sun Microsystems have developed Jini as an offshoot of their Java programming language. Java is a programming language that can run the same program on different, incompatible computers. Jini is meant to take that one step further - it doesn't have to be a computer that runs the program. It can be your toaster, your clothes dryer, anything electrical at all. It can be run remotely, communicate to any other device, send reports on its use to a central office, anything. It doesn't even have to have a phone line: it can send and receive information through its own power cord. Jini sounds like science fiction but it is here now and is available for download. The potential for generating incredibly detailed information compiled from multiple devices in a household is jolting.
Life in the twenty first century will be much more transparent than anyone living today can imagine. Part of this is justifiable: as technology advances, so does the potential for its misuse and the ability of smaller and smaller groups to be able to do this. A "lone gunman" could be able to command resources that ten years previously would have taken a large corporation to assemble. Society must be able to protect itself from this.
However, the potential for misuse does not come from terrorist-type extremists alone. If marketing forces are allowed to operate unchecked, then they will soon know much more about us than we ourselves do and will be pandering to our every whim in order to gain precious market share. They will become very, very good at giving us what we want.
And as any parent can tell you, what we want is not necessarily what we should have.
You may direct comments or suggestions about this feature to: