Carson’s start-up, Hayden AI, is now trying to create a network of eyes many times any CCTV network, supercharged by 5G mobile networks and artificial intelligence. The images could come from almost anywhere: taxi drivers could place a smartphone on their dashboards; if the footage resulted in another motorist receiving a parking fine, the taxi driver could receive a share of the proceeds.
We are becoming known entities. It is not simply that information is being collected on us; that information is now often high-quality video and audio, which can precisely identify our every move.
Meanwhile, employers can track our sleeping habits, retailers can follow us round the aisles, car parts suppliers say that they can identify drivers’ emotions. The resulting data are training complex algorithms, which then nudge us towards certain behaviours. “We are moving from a digital age to an age of prediction,” says Pam Dixon, director of the World Privacy Forum, a think-tank.
Historically you could expect privacy in a phone-box or with a doctor. But what kind of privacy can you expect from a cellphone provider or a fitness watch? We don’t know enough to have expectations.
Brin believes that his vision is coming true — that “godlike powers of almost omniscient vision and surveillance” are spreading. This is not limited to the powerful. Police malpractice is now caught on camera. In the US, family-history websites, to which millions of people submitted DNA samples out of idle curiosity, are being used to identify suspects (the first successful prosecution took place in Washington state last month).
It doesn’t help that privacy is a slippery, abstract concept. It is not mentioned explicitly in the US constitution or in English law before a few decades ago. Its essence is that it is contextual: we want certain information limited to certain people.
There are, however, notable flaws in this vision. Facebook and Google have to keep tracking us, because that is what their advertising business is built on. They can offer consent without offering real choice.
This is the new frontier: to protect our own privacy from intrusive algorithms, we may need to block collection of other people’s data and therefore slow down services that they might find useful. How do we find the balance? For 20 years, tech companies have assumed that they are right to infringe our privacy; we should now ask them to justify themselves first.