Respected social futurist Mal Fletcher says privacy is one of the biggest social and ethical issues of our time. Whenever we talk about surveillance, we usually think 1984. But Fletcher says we now need to be thinking about ‘Bigger Brother’. Thanks to what he calls “technology creep”, he believes Big Brother is already watching us.
Talking to Neil Johnson on Vision Radio’s 20Twenty, Fletcher explained that “we live in a surveillance economy, largely by public consent. People make money today out of attracting and holding our attention, particularly online.”
Mostly, we accept that ‘big tech’ corporations store data about our online activity, and sell it to advertisers. But a recent study revealed that 60 per cent of Smart Toys send information about their interactions to marketers. Are we comfortable with our children’s toys suggesting new things for them to buy?
It isn’t just corporations who are tempted to intrude on our privacy. The threat of terrorism has encouraged governments to investigate how they can use technology to protect us. “One of the greatest challenges for governments and public agencies is to maintain that healthy balance between public security and personal privacy.”
The London Transport Authority recently decided that it would track the Wi-Fi use of customers on the Tube, in order to gather data about how they use the service, and prevent overcrowding. They say the data they store is depersonalised, so it can’t be associated with your name.
But Fletcher points out how that could easily change. ‘”And if that happened, we’d have yet another case of what we call technology creep, which is where the use of a particular technology extends way beyond the parameters that were originally presented to the public.”
There are now 14 CCTV cameras for every person living in London.
CCTV cameras were originally proposed as a way to discourage theft, which they did. “But over time,” Fletcher said, “the use of CCTV technology gradually expanded well beyond that, to the point where cameras are now used to track parents who double park momentarily while dropping the kids at school.”
“The authorities simply decided that ‘Hey, the tools are already in place, so let’s make use of them in this way.'”
If technology creep continues as it has in the past, a future government may not involve us in their decision to personalise the data of Tube customers, ‘for our safety’. “We’re willing to trade some of our privacy in the name of security,” Fletcher said. “But we the public, not just the government, have to be very wary of just how far that line shifts.”
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“And without pitching headlong into the world of Dan Brown conspiracy theories, I think we have to question how technology of the kind being used now by Transport for London in the Tube system might also be used by security agencies.”
How should we as Christians respond to these new technologies? Should we, like the Luddites of the 19th century, smash our smartphones and go back to basics? Is privacy even possible anymore? Mal Fletcher answers all these questions and more in his chat with Neil Johnson. Listen below.
Tune into 20Twenty and join the conversation with Neil Johnson, weekdays on Vision Christian Radio. Click here for your local times.