The Vision

Surveillance in the land of drones and wearables

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright December 2014


With pervasive drones, cameras and wearables, the question of where to draw the line on surveillance will be a hot topic of 2050. The world is going to be full of a lot more cyber, and it will be full of a lot more surveillance. How they should mix will be something humans talk a lot about -- just as they do in the 2010's -- but where the line is drawn will be quite different.

The big benefit of lots of surveillance is faster feedback. The big benefit of fast feedback is reducing waste -- if something is going wrong it can be discovered quickly and corrected quickly. This is a benefit that will be useful all through society, it is hard to think of any activity that can't benefit from faster feedback.

In the 2010's the most talked about down side of pervasive surveillance is lost privacy and its cousin, supporting a totalitarian-style police state. Will this still be the hot issue in 2050?

Fast feedback

The benefits of fast feedback are huge. As pointed out in the introduction, fast feedback reduces waste. If things are going wrong, or, better yet, about to go wrong, then remedies can be quickly brought to the spot and the problem fixed smoothly. This saves the waste of things going wrong, both the quiet forms such as leaking pipes, and the spectacular forms that the media loves to report.

Fast feedback stopping waste will power the drive for more pervasive surveillance constantly, and be the justification for most implementations. But it won't be the high-profile driver. The high-profile driver will be fear.

Stopping scary things from happening

The bright side

Here is an example of how surveillance can stop a scary situation as it begins. Think of a school, think of students all wearing wearables, think of those wearables being constantly monitored. A student's wearables report that his or her physiology is kicking into "fight or flight" mode, which means the student is getting scared by something. A response can be started immediately, such as a school monitor homing in on the student to find out more about what is happening. If this is something such as the start of a bullying incident, it can be stopped immediately. This is an example of a small scale good side that pervasive surveillance can make possible in 2050.

The dark side

From time-to-time a sudden upsurge of high-profile fear will promote having more pervasive surveillance. An example from the 2000's was the response to the 9-11 Disaster, just one element of the response being the US Patriot Act. For more than a decade after that scary incident lots of Americans supported the various levels of US government doing a lot more surveillance. The emotion driver in this circumstance was the belief that if the government law enforcement and spy agencies could see what everyone was doing, they could see terrorists getting ready to commit a terrorist act, and stop them before they did.

Historically, it has been a nice wish, and that is all. Will it still be just a nice wish in 2050? I think so. It is likely to remain a nice wish as long as terrorism gets so much cause-advertising benefit from successful high-profile terrorist acts. The spectacular example of that happening in 2014 was cyber terrorists convincing Sony Entertainment to cancel showing the movie The Interview. At first they weren't going to show it at all, but then Sony partly reversed itself and showed it online and in a handful of "gutsy" theaters.

As long as terrorists are getting this kind of "bang for their buck" they will keep coming up with new ingenious ways of scaring people. Even pervasive surveillance won't stop this.

Surveillance affecting governing using violence

Surveillance won't stop terrorism, but it already has made a big difference in governing styles. The surprising twist concerning surveillance is not the 9-11-inspired secret surveillance, but how the more routine and overt forms change governing styles. Surveillance already makes a big difference in how the powers-that-be, and protesters, handle violence. Here is an example of what difference pervasive surveillance has already made in how communities are governed:

In the 1920's and 30's political movements and governments in engaged in a lot of violence to further their causes. Hitler and the Nazi's had the famous Brown Shirts who were ready, willing and able to trash property and people to further the cause -- Lenin, Stalin and the Soviets famously engaged in their full share as well. And these cases were not exceptional. There was deadly violence in the political processes happening all over the world.

Fast forward to the 1990's. In the 1990's governments and protesters could not use this kind of violence. Marcos in the Philippines, Ceausescu in Romania, Gorbachev in Russia, "Baby Doc" in Haiti were all leaders who fell with a fraction of the violence that tumbled governments in the 20's/30's. The violence that ended the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 became an enduring national embarrassment to the Chinese government, not the "business as usual" it would have been during the Maoist Cultural Revolution Era just twenty years earlier.

What was the difference? The difference was communications technology.

In the 1920's and 30's real-time news, such as a Roosevelt Fireside Chat, was carefully staged from a radio studio filled with a lot of expensive equipment, and visual news was a weekly news reel shown before movies in a movie theater. These news reels were carefully edited as well. All this expense and editing meant the powers-that-be had a lot of control over what the audiences heard and saw. This was the era when propaganda was king.

In the 1990's TV cameras could be shoulder-held and broadcast from on-the-street locations, and citizen-held amateur video was appearing -- Rodney King getting beaten up in 1991 was the first famous example of that. Fax and internet were also in play, so average citizens could tell the world about events they were witnessing real time.

The difference this made was that violence could now be seen happening in near real time, and neither protesters or governments could deny when they were throwing fists, rocks or rubber bullets. And it turned out that the various publics which saw the violence were outraged enough that they wouldn't support the perpetrators. This was a night-and-day change from previous eras.

In 2050 this kind of real time viewing will be even more pervasive. What difference will this even closer surveillance make?

What will privacy consist of in 2050?

Privacy is not well defined in the 2010's, and privacy issues will still rage in 2050 as well. Privacy definitions in 2050 will fall into two broad categories: what is human-human privacy, and what is human-cyber privacy? They are going to be very different.

An example: medical wearables. The cyber these report to are going to have full access. If these cyber programs/entities hear about something that needs correction, they will pass that information on to other cyber, and humans, that can do the diagnosing and correcting. The issue becomes who belongs in that chain of reporting?

Another example: A woman is worried about her husband. She wants to know where the driverless car takes him. When should the system reveal this to her? When should it include pictures of him in the car? The system is likely to be smart enough that if there is someone else in the car with him, it can conceal that. When should it do so?

Business is going to be divided into two broad categories: cyber-controlled and artisanal. How privacy is handled in these two categories will be quite different. The artisanal businesses will be conducted much as small business is today, and the proprietors will be concerned about privacy in much the same ways. Cyber-controlled businesses will be in a completely different world. It will be a world that few humans will comprehend, and a world centered around lots more coordination and fast feedback. Privacy will not be as big an issue in this world.

What is he/she thinking?

An eligible man looks across the table at a singles bar. He's been talking with this woman who could become special to him. Should he make his move now? What is she thinking?

A woman is making a business proposal to a potential client. Has she said enough? Is it time to close? What is he thinking?

One of the surprising twists of people being equipped with lots of wearables is providing more and more answers to this eternal question. In business, romance, and domestic relations knowing what the other person is thinking is quite valuable. If wearables can help decode this mystery, they become even more valuable.

The early efforts will resemble body language -- the questioner will be looking at those things that wearables can monitor -- such as heart rate and hormone levels -- to second guess their thoughts. These early stages will simply be advanced intuition or advanced cold reading. They will be helpful, but there will still be a lot of interpreting needed.

The mid-level efforts happen when the questioner can monitor what the questionee is accessing in cyber space. What research are they doing? What reports are they consulting? Knowing this plus knowing the emotional reactions to that research will allow much more precise responses if things aren't going the way the questioner wants.

Mid-level is likely to be the top skill-level that can be reached by 2050. The advanced level is actually monitoring the thoughts that leak into cyber space as a person is doing their routine thinking. This won't be easy, in part because thoughts are so fleeting and researching them will take so much time.

How much of this style of researching other people's thoughts will be "proper" will be a hot privacy topic.

Further Reading

This 3 Jan 15 Economist article, Your phone says: “Cheer up!” Software that senses how you are feeling is being pitched to gadget-makers, is about wearables and phones sensing the owner's emotions.

From the article, "Beyond Verbal would like to change that. The Israeli startup is one of several firms working in the field of “emotions analytics”. Its software is designed to deduce someone’s emotional state from a brief sample of his voice captured by microphone. Rather than focusing on the words used, the software analyses such things as the loudness and pitch of the speech, and then runs the results through an algorithm to match them with patterns from its database."


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