tagReviews & EssaysThe End of Privacy

The End of Privacy


Summary: The author proposes that in ten years (2023), a confluence of technologies will result in women no longer being able to expect privacy.

Author's note: I actually started writing this just before WIRED released their July 2012 issue, "Here come the Drones", which touches on the technical aspects I discuss.

Discussion: There should be no argument that men are deeply desirous of looking at women, particularly women in various states of undress. From the legendary whorehouses of old to window peeping to the modern abundance of visual pornography, men will go through great lengths to feast their eyes. Some men pay, some men seduce, some men sneak, and some men surf. Whatever them method, most men wish to see the exposed bodies of women. Aware of this, and the results of male lust, parents have for centuries encouraged their daughters to cover up. Whether female modesty is based on nature or nurture is debatable, but in general women choose not to expose their body to all passing males. That choice is going to disappear soon.

The reason that choice is going to disappear is the emergence and confluence of technologies that will allow individuals to conduct invasive video surveillance at a very low cost. These technologies are already on the market or are in development. These technologies are: 1) small video cameras 2) wireless technologies 3) cheap cloud storage 4) batteries 5) robotics and 6) 3D printers. Let us discuss each one in turn.

The advent of personal video cameras changed the way memories are captured. The size of the cameras and the requirement of a power source generally—although not always—meant that the participants were aware that they were being filmed. As the technology improved, the size of cameras shrunk. Many laptops now come with an embedded webcam in their frame. In 2009, Apple introduce an iPod Nano that was priced at $149 (8GB) and included a video camera that could record 16 hours of video. The iPod Nano is less than 0.2 inches thick, which means the video camera is even thinner. The entire package is only 1.5 X 3.6 X 0.2 inches and weighs in at a puny1.3 ounces. There is a video camera on the market (Medigus) that is 1.2mm in diameter. Obviously, video cameras that small can be extremely easy to hide. It would not be a stretch to expect that in the next ten years, cameras with very small form factors and high resolutions will be available at reasonable prices.

The second important technology leading us down this path are wireless technologies. WiFi and Bluetooth are both common technologies that allow components to sever the physical linkage to other devices but still pass data to them. For the purposes of this discussion, it means that a hidden camera does not need to be attached to the viewing or recording device, it can push its images or videos out wirelessly. Severing the physical linkage allows for a dramatic increase in the flexibility of a hidden video camera. Further, the equipment needed to take advantage of wireless is tiny—consider how small Bluetooth headsets are. Also, cellular service is ubiquitous. Virtually all places that have people have cellular coverage. This means that any user physically located in one area can create a data link to almost any other physical area. Pre-paid phones are available for very little money which can allow users to operated anonymously. Whether through WiFi or cellular, you have the capability to create a data link with little to no traceability.

The third technology is the advent of cheap cloud storage, enabled by ready access to broadband data pipes. As mentioned above, the iPod Nano could record 16 hours of video with only 8GB of storage. Storage prices continue to fall, an as a result the price of storing large quantities of data is very low. Further, wireless technologies allow one device to move data files to larger, cheaper, and more distant repositories. The emergence of cloud storage—not just iCloud and DropBox services, but also video streaming sites like YouTube and file sharing sites like Rapidshare—mean that files can be stored remotely and accessed or shared from and by users anywhere in with world. Rather than storing files locally, a video surveillance system could easily move files to cloud storage.

Batteries and power management technologies continue to improve. Much of the volume in modern mobile devices is devoted to batteries, and as a result there is a lot of research going on to make smaller, lighter and longer lasting batteries. Batteries that last longer will almost surely emerge over the next decade. Even barring the advent of parasitic power technologies (which enable a device to draw power from nearby power sources without a physical connection) it is not hard to imagine the development of small video systems that can last for weeks on a charge or can sustain themselves with ambient light.

Robotics/drone technology is a rapidly emerging field that already has wide spread availably as toys. A remote controlled car that fits in the palm of your hand is currently available for under $20. Kiosks abound in malls selling remote controlled helicopters. A quadrocopter only 20" square with autopilot and an integrated camera that can be controlled from an iPhone is on the market. Robots/drones increase in capability constantly. Research is on going to make tiny robots that can act as drones for the military as well as toys for the public. According to WIRED, a researcher has made a 5" butterfly and expects to get it down to the size of a fly. Artificial Intelligence technology that enables robots to roll, walk, or fly on their own is advancing. Robotic behaviors to allow robots to react to their environment in a way similar to insects are being developed. A simple robot could move itself through a house, hiding in shadows, and activating when there is noise. Further, much of the design of systems to control robots are open source and thus available to any interested party.

Finally, the advent of 3D printing puts it all together. It may well be unlikely that a company would sell video drones the size of a fly, as the voyeuristic uses would seem to invite litigation. However, with 3D printing, a moderately funded individual could combine commercially available pieces with self-made parts to make a functional drone. Designs would likely be available on websites, and the final assembly would be done in the privacy one's own home.

The combination of these technologies will result in something that is not only technically simple, but also inexpensive enough to allow many to have access. Let us take a current day example: install an iPod Nano on a remote controlled mini car to make a simple surveillance system the size of a deck of cards for under $200. Limitations are obvious, as none of the components were designed to do video surveillance. Now consider a system the size of a Nano that integrates a video camera, Bluetooth, battery and storage. Install such a system on the bare chassis of a Bluetooth controlled car would result in a smaller and less expensive package. Give the remote control car basic behavior guidance—hide in shadows, activate with sound—and you have very basic, stealthy surveillance system. Shrink all components to the size of a AA battery and you can appreciate how this could change everything. Enable it to fly and it becomes even more flexible.

Envision a moderately funded, technically competent individual who would like to see undressed women (I'm sure we can all name at least a few people like that). He would purchase parts like a tiny video camera, battery, wireless chip, car chassis, and controller. It would not be remarkable if the components ended up costing less than $100. The perpetrator could then finish assembly with custom parts from a 3D printer, resulting in a package the size of an AA battery. He would then drop off the device near women's locker rooms, changing rooms, college dorms or restrooms where there are plenty of places for a small device to hide. The drone would record images or video and transmit it to a small wireless transmitter hidden nearby (ranges up to hundreds of feet) riding on local WiFi or cellular signal. The wireless transmitter would then upload the file to a cloud storage site. The perpetrator could access the files with little risk: if the drone were found, no one would know where the files were being sent until they found and hacked into the wireless transmitter. By the time the cloud storage site was located, the perpetrator would have noticed his drone had been discovered and abandoned the location. Even assuming the component parts could be traced to a buyer, the incriminating files could be far harder to locate.

Even more troubling, if other means of mobility become a reality—like flight or the ability to crawl up walls—hiding places increase dramatically. If sizes decrease, detection becomes even more difficult. If costs decrease, a single perpetrator could surveil dozens of locations. And if instructions get posted to internet forums, thousands of others could duplicate the project. Even houses could be routinely penetrated.

What would be the impact of this? It is hard to predict human reactions, but a society in which many females in states of undress are routinely seen by their peers would likely result in radically different behaviors. And frankly, I don't seen any way of avoiding it.

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