I spent last week satisfying my scifi itch by watching several movies and recorded television shows. I also spent some time reading. Yesterday was spent in Akron at the John S. Knight center taking part in an event called the Oddmall. It's like a combination of a small scifi convention and ComiCon. Plenty of vendors and quite a number of people dressing up like the Ghost Busters, Star Wars, Star Fox, and a few I didn't recognize. Myself and 3 other authors set up shop in the large hall outside the main dealer room. We did okay but none of us made enough to recoup the cost of the space. We are returning today and hope to sell more.
Yesterday, towards the end of the day, when the crowd was winding down, I fired up the computer and started work on Peacekeeper 3. I haven't gotten very far, but at least the book is started. I'll see about writing more today.
Living the Digital Life
I would like to continue the discussion I started last week on data security. Last week, I talked about data security from the perspective of losing your pictures, manuscripts, and other files if one of your hard drives crashes. This week, I want to talk about the digital footprint we all have and what it means.
Many years ago, before the internet changed everything, a person one of my roommates brought into the apartment took my checkbook and used the checks to buy a bunch of stuff. I found out about it only because I have always kept meticulous records and I noticed that several checks were missing. I immediately reported it to the bank. When the checks cleared (and they did) I was called to the bank to verify that the checks were not signed by me. It was clearly a case of forgery. It was an inconvenience but the bank reversed all the charges and life went on.
Today, if someone manages to get the username and password to your bank account, steal your credit card number, or obtain only a frighteningly small number of key facts about you, they can become you and ruin your life, sending you into a financial hole that can take years to climb out of. Being able to see something you like, pick up your phone, order it, and have it arrive at your house in two days is convenient but that convenience comes with a significant amount of risk. To protect ourselves, we have to become vigilant in keeping certain facts about us secret. For many, this means becoming paranoid.
Phishing scams are becoming more sophisticated; so much so that I no longer click on any links in an email no matter who they’re from. Websites are becoming infected with malware that make it appear as if your PC has become infected. They offer up a convenient link to solve the problem. If you click on it, you just invited a criminal to look around inside your computer.
I write science fiction and it’s part of my job as a SciFi writer to predict what the future might be like based on current technology and our understanding of science. If you’ve ever watched the movie Minority Report, you might recall the targeted ads that peppered people as they walked through a mall. This sort of technology exists today and you can see it if you pay attention to the ads that pop up when you move around the internet. You’re being tracked in far greater detail than you might realize. Enormously powerful computers are watching where you go, what you search for, how long you remain on a certain site, and what sort of ads you click on. Every detail of almost every transaction you initiate on the web is recorded, tracked, and sold to others.
Every purchase you make with a credit card and every use of your rewards card leaves a digital record. Camera’s mounted on police cars and in automated toll booths scan every license plate that passes by and dumps the data into a nation-wide database. Face recognition is moving into airports and banks and it won't be long before it's being used to scan the faces of people walking down the street. Scared yet?
Right now, all of this data is stored in separate databases. But more and more of this information is being combined to create a frightening future. Given enough computer power and access to the right sources of data, virtually everything about you can become known. Even data that’s been supposedly anonymized can be reattached with high accuracy to the person to which it belongs – a process called reidentification. Medical data is often stripped of personal information and shipped to research firms doing legitimate analysis of the data. It has been shown that given enough information, such data can be re-associated to the person it belongs to. What does all this mean?
Computers are growing in power every day. The internet has invaded all aspects of our lives whether we know it or not. Someday, in the not too distant future, a computer somewhere will know everything there is to know about you – and there’s nothing you can do about it. Am I worried? As long as my data remains grouped with the other billions of people throughout the world – no. In fact, if that same computer can be programmed to search for patterns and those patterns can stop a terrorist attack or prevent a kidnapping or a murder, then I’m all for it. I’m a single individual among billions. I stand a better chance of winning the lottery than being singled out and targeted as long as I remain part of the noise of data. How detailed can this information get? Let’s take my upcoming trip to Laramie as an example.
I bought my plane ticket over the internet using a credit card several months ago. About a month ago, I rented the van. I’ve done this in the past using Expedia, this time, I went directly to the individual companies. I’ve emailed and I now follow on Twitter the people I will be meeting in less than a month and I stay in touch with those I’ve met during other trips in the past. I will use my credit card and the internet to reserve and pay for my parking spot at the airport. My cell phone is in my pocket at all times, silently establishing my exact position every few seconds. During the trip, I will pay for my meals using my credit card. My license plate might be scanned as I drive to the airport. The van I rent will pass through several automated tollgates and its license plate will be scanned. I will receive a bill for the toll a few weeks after I return meaning the van’s license plate can be traced back to me. While waiting for the plane, I might do a few searches on the internet, update my Facebook page, and send out a few tweets. I might even take a few photos which will be geo-tagged and uploaded.
Given all the above, if all the individual databases could be connected, a computer can extract a huge amount of information about where I’ve been, who I’ve been in touch with, and what I did during the entire trip. Given unlimited access to my digital footprint, a computer could track my life as if it was walking along side me recording everything I did every second of every day. With the internet and the growing power of computers, this day is not too far off. But, just because the data is there does not mean I’m being watched. I’m part of the noise – a few kilobits a second in the sea of multi-terabytes per second. It’s like trying to watch a single grain of sand on a beach as the waves roll in.
But, if I suddenly did something illegal, a future law enforcement agency could zero in on my personal data flow and in a matter of moments locate me for questioning. When this day arrives, computers should be the keymasters of their own data keeping it locked away and encrypted by passwords that only the machines know. Specific details of any single person’s existence should be kept behind electronic walls of silence and only the barest minimum of summary data should be allowed to pass into the hands of non-machine intelligence.
This is a frightening future for many people. But when you think about it, if we apply our exponentially growing technology appropriately, we can create a world where criminals will never get away with anything. Our society can be improved with this technology. The question though is – are we intelligent enough to make that future a reality? Personally, I have my doubts. Tyrants, dictators, greedy people, and governments in general will all have a say in how that technology is put to use. As a writer of science fiction, I can envision both the good and the bad futures. As a human, I hope for the good.