Does Snooping Undercut the Vast Promise of Mobile Tech?

Scenario 1: You’re in for surgery – vital, open-heart surgery. This is the real deal. You go under anesthesia, secure in the knowledge that your surgeon has the finest tools available. She is well-trained, and for today’s surgery, is wearing Google Glass, or its future equivalent (we’re going with the notion that your heart is ok here in the present – honestly, you look great!). While performing surgery, she is able to monitor your vitals without taking her eyes off of you, getting real-time data, even interacting with other specialists watching half a world away, who can tell her if she is missing something. She isn’t, of course, but it is always nice to have other eyes. Not only is the surgery a rousing success, but, with your consent, film of it is used to train other surgeons who have never before gotten access to a bird’s-eye view with all the attendant data on one screen. In a way, you’ve saved lives. In another, more accurate way, you really didn’t do anything but lie still for a while. Still, it’s a nice feeling.

Scenario 2: This is kind of grim. During the surgery, the hospital’s system is hacked into, and the information your surgeon receives is deliberately incorrect. Things go haywire. The feed is manipulated and stolen. She’s a brilliant surgeon, so you pull through, but it was a lot dicier than it should have been. But still, the feed is also stolen, so you, all cut open and intensely vulnerable, become an internet sensation, fodder for those looking for a sick thrill. It’s a grotesque invasion of your privacy, even if you take out the nihilism of the initial act.

Neither of these scenarios is particularly implausible, even if the latter takes things to their logical extremes. It shows the true split in the internet culture – the vast, almost limitless promise of mobile technology and wearable gear, and the vandal impulse, which, when combined with vast and unchecked government surveillance, almost make the Luddite concept seem palatable. Which side is winning out?

4th Amendment (Image from
How is this going to work in the era of mobile technology. We’re grappling toward answers.

Coming Soon to a Hospital Near You

This is occasioned by a great article in today’s Atlantic online by Vidya Viswanathan about hospitals struggling to find rules dealing with the use of Google Glass, but by extension it is about any new development. And I don’t mean this in a way that “hospitals are conservative institutions reluctant to shift away from what has proven to work” (which isn’t a bad thing). You could draw parallels between different technologies and developments, and say opposition to use wearable tech is part of that continuum, but I think it is slightly a different animal.

The implementation of mobile tech isn’t a medical development, per se, but a technological one that can potentially change the way medicine is performed. That opens up a true dilemma, because the issue isn’t just how medical developments relate to people, but how the entire field of medicine relates, and reacts to, society.

This article isn’t about the outcome of that choice, or how they should make it – the question of how to balance patient privacy with the potential for nearly unlimited resources and total global interactivity even during surgery (I’m going to stipulate the interactive part is in a good way, not playing games or ordering lunch). I’m more interested in the nature of the choice itself.

Taking the Good with the Grim

We talked briefly once about how the Supreme Court Riley ruling is a huge boon for privacy advocates, but I also don’t want to overstate the case. These are not boom times for privacy. Beside the obvious assaults on freedom and the 4th Amendment (as Conor Fridersdorf talked about yesterday), like from the NSA, there are other insidious ways in which the internet culture is being taken over by large countries and corporations with the own private agendas.

In something that would be ridiculous, like Monty Python meets Kafka, were it not so serious, Glenn Greenwald over at the increasingly-invaluable Intercept recently reported that the British intelligence agencies have the ability to “seed the internet with false information, including the ability to manipulate the results of online polls, artificially inflate pageview counts on web sites, ‘amplif[y]’ sanctioned messages on YouTube, and censor video content judged to be ‘extremist.’ The capabilities, detailed in documents provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, even include an old standby for pre-adolescent prank callers everywhere: A way to connect two unsuspecting phone users together in a call.”

It seems like nonsense, of course: why manipulate a public poll, most of which have the depth of this Onion parody, “Lazy ESPN Poll Asks Readers if They Like Sports.” But of course, while online polls generally lack scientific validity, that doesn’t mean they can’t be used to manipulate opinion with a kind of herd mentality. It’s subtle things like that which show the darker powers of mobile culture.

So, Is It Worth It?

This all sounds very bleak, and in some ways, it is. To me, it is the creepy, carnival-tent parallel with the hospital question- the powerful have always tried to use whatever is handy to solidify their power – and those like in the opening scenario, who don’t have power, but who want to watch things burn, can use the same tools. And these tools are different than anything that has come beforehand, because they have the power to be all-encompassing.

But the amazing thing is, we all have the same tools, and, more importantly, the ability to know the methodology. The incredible thing about the internet is that those that operate in its odd and dim warrens of secrecy can be brought to the light by the same methods they employ. It’s the incredible power of mobile tech, because it puts power into your hands – into everyone’s.

It’s going to take a long time to sort this all out. Possibly decades. But I do believe, in the end, the right to privacy will win out. If we have to give up life-saving medical developments because we can’t trust ourselves, I think that will call for a reckoning. In the meantime, though, stay in better shape, ok?

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