The Surveillance Cloud

This post is inspired by the most recent hacking of celebrity accounts and release of very private photos.

I’ve been trying to think of a good analogy or alternative name for the cloud–calling it “the cloud” completely obfuscates what’s actually going on. Here’s what I came up with:

Imagine it’s the 1970s and Eastman Kodak set up a series of warehouses around the country to store the negatives of any photos people take with their cameras. Once you finish a roll, you package it up and ship it to the nearest warehouse, free of charge. If you needed a copy of a photo, you could request it from the warehouse and one would be sent. Think about it–sending a roll of nude selfies with your name attached to it to the corporate warehouse for safekeeping. And you know that similar warehouses run by other companies have had break-ins and feature lax security. You know that there are people out there dedicated to breaking into these warehouses and stealing personal information.

Put in this context, the scenario is absurd–“here Eastman Kodak, I trust you to store naked pictures of me, keep others from seeing them, and to actually destroy them when I request it.”

We’re all ignorant of what we’re doing. Virtually everything is being recorded, and almost nothing is being deleted. I know people in the data storage industry who tell me that ~90% of all data is written once and then never read again. Anything placed on an internet connected machine is being (or will soon be) hoovered up, and the only reason most of us are ok with this is crowd anonymity. Most of us are unimportant enough that we evade notice. When millions of credit cards are stolen, only a small fraction of them are used before the credit card company invalidates them and issues new cards to the rightful owners. Our bank accounts are secure simply because we are not high profile targets and because there’s just enough of a barrier in place to make it not worthwhile to target us. And even when we are caught in something, it’s usually bad luck and we’re protected by sheer numbers.

The systems for parsing information and acting on it are far behind the amount of data we’re generating. But at some point they might catch up, or get close enough that suddenly there is no crowd anonymity anymore.  This is what I fear the first AIs (or advanced expert systems, or whatever–sentience optional) will be designed for.  At some point in the near future, there will be no privacy.  Everything will be covered in sensors, and everything you do and say will be recorded, forever.  There will be enough information for advanced algorithms to predict the broad outlines of your thoughts and future behaviors.  Think of Minority Report, but with machines instead of telepaths.

The cloud should be renamed something like “Permanent eStorage” (Permstor?) or “Corporate Warehouse”–this last would be something like “I uploaded my nude photos to Apple’s corporate warehouse.”  I’m not good with names…

On the plus side, with this level of data retention your personality might be possible to reconstruct in machine form and some aspect of you could become immortal.  There are also many benefits to having so much information available for running society.  On the minus side, the society you will inhabit is likely to be awful and this information will likely be abused.

I have no solution to this yet.  Clearly some sort of institutional changes and major cultural growth will be necessary to deal with such an apparatus.  I consider it unlikely that we’ll stop its development, and the only scenarios I see where development halts likely involve wars that would topple the existing power structures–and kill billions in the process.  So I believe that adaptation and resistance with the intent to guide the system to a better state are the most productive activities to engage in.


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