History doesn’t exist in neat brackets. Eras are often defined by events, not by years. When people talk about “the 60s,” they’re often referring to events outside the span of 1960-1970. When someone says “the 60s,” they might mean anything from 1959, to Kennedy’s election, to Kennedy’s assassination, to Dylan going electric at Newport, or even to the release of Sargent Peppers.
The point is that eras start slowly and we don’t really see them coming into alignment until we have the power of retrospect. When writing the history of the 21st century, there are two days that will certainly be used to signify our era: September 11th, 2001, and June 29th, 2007: the day the iPhone was released.
Obviously, these two days couldn’t be more different, to the point where comparing them is grotesque. One was a bright and terrible day that bloomed immediately and horribly into a new era with a crime that birthed cascading tragedies, whereas the release of the iPhone was a triumph. It solidified the technological gains that we had been making for years and made our most sophisticated tech incredibly portable.
But these days are intimately connected. The rise of the Age of Terror and the Information Age coincided in a way that seemed almost fated. They complemented each other, both in terms of fear and in terms of privacy, and forced us to ask ourselves what we’re willing to give up. This week, some of the major Bay Area tech firms took a stand in the security vs. privacy debate, in ways that will potentially have huge ramifications for our mobile tech moving forward.
Security vs. Privacy: What Do We Owe?
There has been a long history of give-and-take between the government who wants information for security purposes and the social media and search sites to whom we give information willingly. There has been cooperation, public shaming, and retrenchment.
The government is asking companies like Mountain View’s Google and San Francisco’s Facebook and Twitter to mine their services for terrorist activity. The thinking goes that these sites are already excellent at understanding patterns and coming up with user profiles, which they use to sell ads. The profile knows that you, for instance, are a 33-year-old married woman who loves music, fishing, painting, and camping. It knows who your friends are and what they like to do. It makes connections to sell you things. It figures out who you are and what you’re likely to do next. Heck, it even knows where you are with increasing frequency.
Now, for some people, that is disturbing, but others are fine with this lack of privacy because it makes life more convenient and erases many of the mundane hassles that waste much of our time. However, the ability to create a profile and track users is, essentially, the heart of intelligence work. Spies and agents spend their whole lives trying to get the kind of information that most of us willingly give out.
So now the government is trying to pressure Google, Twitter, and Facebook, among others, through proposed legislation, to monitor their users to see if any of them are potentially terrorists, engaged in terroristic leanings, or are actively plotting. On the surface, of course, this seems reasonable. The internet has been a huge boon for recruiting and plotting. Some of the best anti-jihad work has been done by professionals and analysts who monitor websites for chatter. So it stands to reason that if Google or Facebook can find a potential threat, they should alert the authorities. Right?
Can Our Mobile Tech Understand Us
Of course, it isn’t that easy. For one thing, very few successful organizations start a Facebook page to discuss their upcoming plot. If that were the case, none of these companies would have a problem acting. As a representative for Facebok explained, when there is a child endangerment issue, it is pretty cut-and-dried. The problem with spotting terrorist leanings on FB is that it is ultimately a value judgement by people who are programmers, not counterterrorism professionals. They either have to make a call for which they are entirely untrained or have a program do it for them. And that’s where it gets tricky.
Social media algorithms are good at picking up interest, but not intent. I am forever being subjected to ads promoting candidates who wouldn’t get my vote if they were running against a cactus, simply because I yammer about politics so much. The algorithms understand outlines, but not the reality behind them. There is no way for Facebook to really know who believes what or what can constitute an actual threat because, at the end of the day, it is just trying to create a rough profile. It would be akin to having a computer look at the framework of a house being built and asking that program if the people who will eventually live inside truly love each other.
In the end, we don’t want to cede too much control to the algorithms. When it comes to security vs. privacy, there has to be a hard line so merely using certain keywords isn’t enough to trigger alarms, or else we’ll always live in a terrible shadow. It’s important that this work remain in the hands of the professionals, so it’s good that these Bay Area companies are pushing back. Our mobile tech is going to be a part of us – an amazing, nearly magical part. As consumers, we want to maintain our independence so that our smartphones and tablets can continue to be an invaluable part of our lives.