Privacy versus Efficiency
Privacy versus Efficiency
February 27, 2012
If I offered you $100 to make your web browsing history public on an ongoing basis, would you take it? Probably not. Most people value their Internet privacy more than a hundred bucks. But suppose I offered you a billion dollars instead. Now can I look at your browser history forever? I think most people would say yes. My point is that your privacy is already for sale. It’s just unlikely anyone will offer you enough money to close a deal.
Privacy has many flavors, from your bedroom antics, to your driving record, to your health records, to your income, and so on. I wonder which of your privacies has the highest value on the open market. In other words, if you were going to trade away just one type of privacy, which kind would fetch the best price, either monetarily or in terms of improved lifestyle for you?
I think the most marketable type of privacy is your identity and location at any given moment. Imagine what kind of world you could live in if your smartphone broadcasted your identity wherever you went.
To paint you a picture, imagine you have plans for dinner and a show with friends. You agree to pick up your friends on the way, and they can see your location on their phones so they know exactly when to meet you at the street.
At dinner, the hostess greets you by name and already knows where you will be sitting. The restaurant’s system shows her the exact time the last diners were seated, and whether or not they have paid. Your table is ready, and she shows you to it.
When you enter the dining room, your phone automatically displays the menu. You tap buttons to hide the types of food you aren’t interested in tonight: No chicken, no pizza, etc. The dishes that you’re interested in show up with photos, descriptions, and calorie counts. The next time you visit this same restaurant, the menu will arrive with your filters already set, but you can adjust the filters as you please.
The server comes to your table, greets each of you by name, and answers your questions before you tap your phone to finalize your order. The server sees a note on her phone that you bought show tickets for later that night, so she asks if she needs to speed up your service. You say yes.
During the meal, if you need your server’s attention, just tap a button on your phone and the server or the nearest busser will be alerted. No more craning your neck and trying to get someone’s attention.
At the end of the meal, the server asks how you would like to divide the bill. In a few seconds, the prorated bill appears on the phones of whoever is paying. You review your part of the bill, and tap the button corresponding to the appropriate tip percentage. Your credit card is automatically charged. No need to divide the bill evenly, because your specific orders will show up on your bill only.
When you walk past the hostess stand to leave, the valet is automatically alerted to fetch your car. Your phone pops up with a valet tip screen. You tap it once to send your tip. The valet’s phone makes a distinctive boing to let him know you tipped, and he thanks you by name.
When you enter the theater, your phone acts as your ticket, and you breeze through the line without showing anything to anyone. Once inside, a seating chart pops up on your screen automatically. Your reserved seats are highlighted on the chart, and arrows show you the way to your seat. But you also notice that some of your Facebook friends are at the theater too, and their seats are also highlighted in case you want to say hi.
At intermission, you get in line for a drink, and the drink menu automatically pops up on your screen. You fill in your order on your phone so your drinks are prepared by the time you get to the front of the line. You tap a button on your phone to pay.
While you’re waiting, your phone alerts you that your friends are approaching the lobby, and it helpfully reminds you of their names so you don’t get caught in an awkward situation.
After the show, you walk to your car, and your phone acts like a remote key. Your seats and mirrors adjust, and the doors unlock. When you get home, your front door unlocks automatically and the lights and climate controls adjust according to your preferences for that time of day. If you’re a TV watcher, a screen pops up on your phone with a program listing, filtered to display only the sort of shows you like. Press one button and the TV comes on in whatever room you happen to be in. Walk near your home computer, and the password protection goes off. Turn on your shower, and the water temperature adjusts to your liking. Your phone beeps when the water reaches the right temperature. If your spouse is in the area, your phone might ask which one of you is preparing for the shower.
By now you’re thinking of all the security issues you might have with a system that is so powerful. A thief who steals your phone can steal your entire identity. But let’s assume all financial transactions require you to enter a PIN. Let’s assume the larger transactions also transmit the stored image of your face to the cashier or banker, so there is a visual safeguard too. Let’s also assume you have a “remote kill” option for a stolen phone, so you can wipe it clean from any other phone or computer. Then you can quickly download your profile from the cloud to your new phone.
Assume also that your identity broadcasting feature can be turned off anytime you prefer to fly under the radar.
And let’s say your phone is so smart that it can detect movement that is atypical for the owner. The moment your phone heads toward Oakland at midnight, the screen locks and requires a password.
You can imagine a hundred more applications that make sense for a world in which a smartphone owner’s identity and location are continuously transmitted to the immediate environment. Almost every routine activity would be smoother and friendlier. You would wait in shorter lines, and always see the most relevant choices for your particular situation. Public transportation would be so efficient that no one would want to use a private car inside a city.
I can imagine entering my grocery list on my phone or computer, selected from a master list of all the items I typically buy. When I enter the store, my phone automatically creates the most efficient route through the aisles, and vibrates when I pass a shelf with anything on my list.
The keys to this imaginary future are twofold: First, the world needs universal technology standards for smartphones to negotiate with their immediate surroundings. (I doubt Bluetooth is sufficient, but I wouldn’t know.) Secondly, people would have to get comfortable with a world in which systems that are connected to the Internet are aware of their locations. According to everything I read, that’s the sort of privacy violation that older people would resist and younger people consider no big deal. Personally, I would trade my location and identity privacy to get the benefits I described, as long as I could turn off my identity broadcasting feature whenever I wanted.
Imagine the economic stimulus that will happen when we reach the cusp of the future I’m describing. Every home, business, phone, computer, and automobile will need some sort of upgrade to conform to the new standard. And when it’s fully implemented, the savings in energy costs alone would be huge. My prediction is that the next big economic wave will involve smartphones negotiating with the environment on behalf of the owner.