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The Internet's Future: It's Good, Bad and Ugly

abstract:I've been thinking about the ways in which information technology is enveloping our daily lives beyond our use of smart phones and laptops. The connectivity between individuals and information systems means that you are almost never "off-grid". As we go about our daily lives using our phones to make calls, access the web and use a myriad of apps there is a whack of information going in both directions. Things like your geo-location, your browsing habits, and the things you share on social media only scratch the surface. Multiple systems have created profiles of you. That's how your bank knows when to question a credit card purchase. Stores purchase your tracked shopping patterns to know which ad coupons to push to your smart phone when you enter their store. Wait, it gets worse. Digital advertising signs on streets, at bus stops, in stores, will change just for you based on your purchasing and browsing patterns [to the ironic instance of the photo at right]. Let's hope it's not like the annoying way ads are served to us presently on our laptops/phones such that after we visit a website those ads relentlessly "follow" us, appearing on every consecutive ad space in all the sites we browse for weeks and weeks forward, until we finally figure out we can click the "x" to block it.

Think about how all the raw data being collected on people around you is simultaneously being correlated and applied to us. ie. Google Maps show commuter route traffic density using the GPS movement of other commuter's cell phones. Smart meters installed on our houses by utility companies are hour-by-hour measuring our energy consumption. Smart chips in our appliances are communicating with them too. They'll soon know when we wake up and put the coffee machine on and use the microwave, turn up the heat, put our laundry in, which will determine energy fees charged according to a sliding scale of use and demand. Want to lower your Fortis bill?


December 14, 2015
— Program your dishwasher to start after midnight, etc. Next step: you'll shut the door to the dishwasher and the utility company will decide when to turn it on - or charge you a premium if you choose. Smart control is being lauded as putting a layer of intelligent connectivity that "continually observes, anticipates, and adjusts" to our needs and preferences. Tech companies like Qualcommare talk about cognitive advances for things we previously anticipated in sci-fi movies with machine learning at the heart of this radical transformation. Here's a plug:

"These technologies add context and intuition to everything around us—automobiles recognize their owners, homes anticipate the needs of occupants, accessories track our fitness levels, cities monitor infrastructure demands in real time, and health trackers ensure care is delivered promptly, anywhere, anytime. See how Qualcomm is using cognitive technologies to bring the Internet of Everything to life."

Now watch their video. I can't help thinking that information will be used against us by over-reaching governments, corporations and institutions. Like the Fit Bit that tells your health insurance provider you are not exercising enough and raises your premium rate. Or that purchase of booze or cigarettes just blew your medical check-up report that stated you quit. What about the person who gets fired because their prescription drug record somehow got into the hands of their employer who discovered they are psych or HIV meds?

What we really need to know is how all this information is being stored and accessed. And how we can limit our digital footprint to control exploitation of that data. How much government surveillance do we need? They're tracking our cell phone location and data, monitoring our text and voice communications, gaining access to our photographs, our Facetime, and our Skype chats. How do we turn back the clock to protect our civil rights as private citizens?

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world wide web and director of the Web Foundation, points to what needs to happen for the future of the digital age. Even with the FOI act, he says that more government information needs to be made public so that they too can be held accountable. And their reach into our realm needs to be handled like a UN bill of rights: "...forward-thinking governments are developing national internet Bills of Rights based upon broad public participation, which entrench human rights and safeguard space for innovation, while recognising the legitimate needs of companies to make profits and of governments to fight crime." Let's make 2016 the year we fix this!



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