Privacy may be dead, killed by the modern age of computing, but there is no reason to fear the companies gathering information on us, said Robert Scoble, a tech evangelist, author and blogger.
The Big Data revolution has begun. Thanks to a plethora of smart devices, and with many more yet to come, corporations know more about us than ever. Privacy, to put it mildly, is increasingly a thing of the past.
But Scoble is unworried. “Big data collection sounds scary, but those who embrace it are going to benefit in many ways, while those who don’t probably won’t,” he told an audience in Jerusalem last week.
That collected data is going to be coming from everywhere, Scoble said at an event sponsored by Jerusalem Venture Partners (JVP). Scoble was in Israel to attend several events connected with wearable technology and the Internet of Things, in which sensors are going to be integrated into almost everything to collect data on all aspects of our lives. The information would go to companies who will use it in a variety of ways, from marketing products to monitoring our health.
It is astounding how much data is already being gathered and how much more we will be sending out, said Scoble. “By 2020, there will be 50 billion devices in the world connected to the Internet, gathering data that will be sent onwards.” He mentioned several possibilities for this future, including clothing with sensors built in, monitoring our heartbeats and blood pressure; cars with sensors checking our speed and caution on the road; and refrigerators with sensors that will check on whether you need milk and send you a text message, perhaps along with a coupon for milk at a specific store.
“Even Cheerios will be ‘collecting’ data on you,” said Scoble. “Already in Brazil there is a grocery chain using Primesense cameras — very sensitive 3D motion cameras, developed in Israel — that keep an eye on your shopping habits. If you pick up a box of Cheerios and put it back on the shelf, the cameras will see that and register the information, and the store might offer you a promotion to get you to pick it back up and put it in your cart. Or they might notice that you bought some cookies, and you might get a text message on your smartphone that says something like ‘Don’t forget the milk.’”
The new era of data collection and analysis that the Internet of Things is ushering in could rightly be called the “Age of Context,” said Scoble, which is incidentally the name of the latest book he co-wrote with fellow tech blogger Shel Israel. “It’s more than just collection of data, it’s using data to provide us with services, and to market to us, of course,” said Scoble. “The cost of sensors is going down, computers are getting smaller, networks are faster and data storage facilities are bigger than ever. Put them all together and you have the makings of a contextual operating system.”
Companies such as Google would likely build such an operating system. For example, said Scoble, “if you get a phone call, for example, Google might check your Google Calendar, and, if it sees you’re busy, it could send out a message telling the caller to try again later, without your having to do anything.”
Sensors in watches and other devices might keep track of pulse, blood pressure and other vital signs, reporting back to the doctor, who will get an alarm if a dangerous medical situation develops. Lights may turn on and off automatically, based on our pattern of use, saving us money. Sensors could alert parents when an infant needs to be fed, or needs to be changed. Apps would check our schedule and the traffic in advance of our trip, and recommend we leave earlier to beat the traffic.
The list of ways that data could be used to serve us, and benefit the companies selling us services and products, is endless, said Scoble. While “data collection” might be the politically correct term for all this, there is no point in beating around the bush, said Scoble. “We’re talking about surveillance, and the future is going to be full of it.”
We’ve been living under “surveillance” for awhile now, said Scoble, noting that the Internet of Things will just extend a situation most people accepted long ago. “Banks and other financial institutions have known a lot about us for a long time, and they have been fairly responsible with that information, as have doctors and insurance companies. We’ve trusted credit card companies with a lot of personal data for many years, and they generally have done their best to keep our information safe.” For all the reams of data it collects, Google itself has done little more than push ads its algorithms think we may be interested in, which we are free not to click. “What we’re seeing now is just an increase in scale of data collected. I think we can trust the marketplace,” said Scoble.
“Whenever a new technology comes on the scene there are questions about its safety and risks. It’s a matter of weighing the options and seeing what the cost/benefit is. For example, people die in car crashes, but for most of us the benefit we get from cars outweighs the risks of death or damage in an accident.” Ditto for credit card use and the benefits we are likely to realize from a connected future, Scoble said.
As an example, Scoble tells a personal tale. “I was recently on a flight from Chicago to San Francisco, and there was a delay in taking off. One of the apps I use on my smartphone checked with the airline, and I got a message that the flight was being canceled. This app has my credit card information, so it asked me if I wanted to buy a new ticket on another flight, and I said yes, with the purchase made right from my seat.
“Two minutes later, the captain gets on the speaker and announces that the flight was cancelled, and that the airline had no more flights that night. Everyone was going to be stuck in Chicago overnight. It turned out there were just three seats left on the last flight out that night, and, thanks to my being connected and trusting the app with my information, I got one of them.”
That sums up the Big Data future, said Scoble. “Not everyone is going to embrace this, but those who do will get a lot more benefits. That night in Chicago, I won the ‘game of life,’ and I believe that those who embrace the data-connected future will win it as well.”