One of the painful ironies of today’s world – which seems to stab us with a new painful irony every week or two – is the way we have flipped George Orwell’s Big Brother on its head.
The problem isn’t Them secretly watching Us, as “1984” predicted. The problem is Us watching ourselves and telling Them all about it – although Them isn’t always who Orwell thought it would be.
“We’re at a point in our society where we all carry devices with us that indicate where we are to so many people – FitBit, iWatch, Apple Watch, other devices that can track where we are. We use those for good reason … but this data is being shared with people that maybe we don’t want to have our data,” is how Sen. Shannon Chandley, an Amherst Democrat, put it during a recent hearing on a bill that takes aim at this problem.
Chandley’s bill, SB 732, and a similar bill in the House, HB 1376, want to make it illegal for telecommunication or software companies to share location data collected by those computerized snoops in our pockets, purses and wrists, unless the customer gives permission. Both would impose fines or allow for civil lawsuits in case of violation.
The bills, which are both in committee, try to tackle part of what we’ve only just realized is a big problem: All the self-spying we’re happily doing in return for a little convenience or entertainment.
Those “smart speakers” installed by the millions in our homes and listening to our every word, for example, are exactly what Orwell feared the government would create, not realizing corporations would do it instead. Imagine the jealousy of retired Soviet spymasters who struggled to sneak microphones into homes when they see how people now pay for the privilege and perform the installation themselves!
And what about networked doorbells like Amazon’s Ring? They record everything around them and store it in databases accessible to who-knows-who. The communist Chinese government had to build and run a huge network of closed-circuit cameras in the name of state security in order to accomplish what we’re voluntarily doing in the name of “home security.”
This doesn’t even consider the oncoming onslaught of “Internet of Things” devices, which will all be networked and gathering data about everything from how often we run our air conditioner to when we need to reorder Cookie Dough Ice Cream.
There is an interesting New Hampshire legal angle to the Ring doorbells, incidentally: They might violate state privacy law which says you can’t audio-record a conversation without the other person’s permission. (Silent video recording is OK.)
The issue has come up in a case involving a Rochester shooting accidentally recorded by a neighbor’s doorbell. No matter what happens, I can’t imagine that little New Hampshire can really affect a behemoth like Amazon, but we’ll see.
That’s also my thought about the anti-location-tracking bills: Can New Hampshire really do anything by itself?
Telecommunications regulation is mostly the job of the federal government because the industry crosses state lines. But the prospect of Washington doing anything to help people if it hurts corporate profits seems slim, which explains why New Hampshire, like a few other states, is trying to do something itself.
The real complication, however, isn’t legal but social. We want these devices to spy on us because otherwise, they don’t work.
Smart speakers have to listen all the time to know when we call them; networked doorbells have to send video to “the cloud” if we’re going to see it when we’re not at home; telecom firms have to know where we are every instant or our phones are bricks.
Until recently, most of us haven’t thought about what we were giving up in return for these conveniences. That’s changing as we realize how much information is being grabbed and stored, and hear about third-party resellers that make zillions of dollars selling our information so it can be used to bombard us with ads, alter pricing or availability of products, handed over to government agencies on a whim, maybe even improve the effectiveness of election tampering.
And that doesn’t even count the inevitable time when the databases are hacked and the information floods the internet, or whether the government is getting access to it in ways we don’t like.
It is, of course, possible to not buy or use any of these intrusive devices, but that’s increasingly difficult as the world gets attuned to them. Try looking for a job or a place to live or a new life partner without an always-on cell phone.
So the only hope, it seems, is that Big Government can somehow make Big Tech behave. That’s not a concept that comfortably fits into the New Hampshire ethos but it might be necessary in this Brave New World we’re inhabiting.