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Experts Forecast the End of Privacy as We Know It

By John P. Mello Jr. TechNewsWorld ECT News Network
Dec 18, 2014 11:48 AM PT

Privacy's future appears muddy at best, judging from a survey released Thursday by the Pew Research Center and Elon University's Imagining the Internet Center.

Experts Forecast the End of Privacy as We Know It

More than 2,500 Internet experts and analysts were narrowly divided on whether policy makers and technology innovators would create a secure, popularly accepted and trusted privacy-rights infrastructure by 2025.

Fifty-five percent didn't believe a structure to protect privacy would be in place; 45 percent believed such a structure would be created.

"There's lots of contention about how the future will unfold," Pew's Director of Internet, Science and Technology Research Lee Rainie told TechNewsWorld.

Departing from the typical multiple-choice survey methodology, the Pew-Eton researchers asked the hand-picked respondents to elaborate on their yes or no answers. There was a dominant theme in many of their comments, regardless of their views on the likelihood of a strong privacy infrastructure being established in the next 10 years.

"A lot of the people on both sides of the question basically said that life in public is the new norm now," Rainie said. "Privacy is an activity to be achieved in havens or in special circumstances with lots of effort. The default condition of humans in the post-industrial world is you're in public all the time."

Accepting the Fish Bowl

The main driver behind people leading more transparent lives will continue to be the same in the coming years, observed Robert Neivert, COO of Private.me.

"People have begun to accept the concept that they can exchange personal information for services," he told TechNewsWorld. "In the last six or seven years, we've begun to accept that giving up your personal information is a form of currency."

Today's privacy debate will bemuse the denizens of 2025, contended Hal Varian, Google's chief economist.

"By 2025, the current debate about privacy will seem quaint and old-fashioned," he wrote in his survey comments.

"The benefits of cloud-based, personal, digital assistants will be so overwhelming that putting restrictions on these services will be out of the question. Of course, there will be people who choose not to use such services, but they will be a small minority," Varian continued.

"Everyone will expect to be tracked and monitored, since the advantages, in terms of convenience, safety, and services, will be so great," he added. "There will, of course, be restrictions on how such information can be used, but continuous monitoring will be the norm."

Trust in Transparency

By 2025, the tradeoff between privacy and transparency will determine a person's trustworthiness, maintained Jerry Michalski, founder of REX -- the Relationship Economy eXpedition.

"By 2025, you will be considered a non-person if you do not have embarrassing photos or videos online from your misspent youth," he wrote in his comments.

"People who were very parsimonious about sharing personal information will be less credible and will be trusted less," Michalski continued, "because others will not be able to see any of their indiscretions -- the things that make them human and more trustworthy."

Overall, the comments from survey respondents ranged from very optimistic, like those from Vint Cerf, chief Internet evangelist at Google, to disheartening, like those from danah boyd, a research scientist at Microsoft.

"By 2025, people will be much more aware of their own negligent behavior, eroding privacy for others, and not just themselves," Cerf wrote.

"Users will insist on having the ability to encrypt their email at need. They will demand much more transparency of the private sector and, especially, their governments," he predicted. "Privacy conventions will evolve in online society -- violations of personal privacy will become socially unacceptable."

Bloody Mess

The idea of a privacy framework is "a fantasy," wrote boyd.

"I expect the dynamics of security and privacy are going to be a bloody mess for the next decade, mired in ugly politics and corporate greed. I also expect that our relationship with other countries is going to be a mess over these issues," she wrote. "People will be far more aware of the ways that data is being used and abused, although I suspect that they will have just as little power over their data as they do now."

The Internet of Things, which will allow everything from toasters to watches to spew data about their users, will exacerbate the tech assault on privacy.

"Every object will become a spy," said Privacy.me's Neivert.

The level of surveillance that exists now will seem pale once everything starts communicating with the Net.

"Once we start wearing the Internet and our appliances are connected to the Internet, the level of observation, data capture and surveillance is going to explode," Pew's Rainie said.

Class Warfare

What's done with that data doesn't necessarily have to impinge on privacy, noted Alexandra Ross, founder of The Privacy Guruand senior counsel at Paragon Legal.

"There can be great consumer benefit with the Internet of Things, but companies must be more transparent with how they're collecting, using and sharing that information so that privacy can be protected," she told TechNewsWorld.

If privacy continues to be eroded, class issues could arise, asserted Alf Rehn, chair of management and organization at Abo Akademi University in Finland.

"As privacy is becoming increasingly monetized, the incentive to truly protect it is withering away, and with so much of policy run by lobbyists, privacy will be a very expensive commodity come 2025," he wrote in his survey comments.

"Sure, some of us will be able to buy it, but most will not," he continued. Privacy will be a luxury, not a right -- something that the well-to-do can afford, but which most have learnt to live without."

Whatever the state of privacy will be in 2025, chances are good that it won't resemble what it is today.

"It will be conceived differently than it is now," said Lisa Sotto, head of the global privacy and cybersecurity practice at Hunton & Williams.

"We'll have more awareness as a society," she said. "As a result of that, we will make more informed and better choices about the use of our data," she told TechNewsWorld.

"The concept of privacy will shift and much of our lives will be exposed," added Sotto, "but we'll have a better understanding of what we want to protect, and we'll use significant constraints to make sure what we want hidden remains hidden."


John Mello is a freelance technology writer and contributor to Chief Security Officer magazine. You can connect with him on Google+.


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