Would you pay to have paparazzi follow you around all day? Maybe if you are a complete diva, but for most people, I suspect the answer is no. However, something like this already seems to be happening. People are willingly surrendering their privacy for financial rewards or convenience. No, I’m not just talking about giving away your name and contact information to companies in return for special deals or lotteries. We’ve already lost most of our privacy when it comes to purchasing anything with a credit card, rewards card, or an online account. In most cases, our privacy isn’t being taken, it is being sold like candy to a baby.
Progressive Insurance and other auto insurance companies now offer the potential for lower rates based on a unique way of measuring risk based on actual driving habits. Unfortunately, it involves placing a tracking device inside your car to track how you drive. The three most common measurements that we know of are the number of times you brake hard, how often you drive between midnight and 4AM, and how many miles you drive. Sounds reasonable, right?
However, I’m sure it will not be long before they are also tracking whether or not you are driving within the speed limit. This would require real-time GPS tracking, which some devices have built in. Is this a concern to you? If you trust your insurance company not to turn this over to the government, which may then cite you for speeding, then you may not care. But what about those who aren’t so trusting? Will their rates start to rise if they refuse to be tracked? If the people who agree to be tracked are proved or believed to be the safest drivers, then it follows that the pool of remaining drivers will have a higher average insurance risk. This inevitably will lead to higher rates.
Some have even proposed methods to track drunk driving and texting while driving. Again, it sounds cool, right? But to do this requires progressively more (forgive the pun) details of your behavior. To know if the driver is texting, the device would need to locate the exact source of the signal (to know if it being used by the driver) or the ability to tell if you are alone in the car rather than with a texting passenger. Some devices already work to alert sleepy drivers by watching them through an installed camera and using algorithms to detect inattentive behavior. What could be bad about having a camera and other sensors installed in your car and watching your every move? Will it be able to track blowjobs while driving?
What about a camera in your TV set-top box? Verizon has filed a patent to use a set-top box camera to look for behavior cues that would help them to serve you more relevant advertising. According to the patent, Verizon would install various detection sensors, such as a webcam or heat cam, to recognize “an ambient action performed by a user during the presentation of the media content program.” The sensors would then provide feedback to the Verizon box, which would air commercials that are supposedly relevant to what you are doing.
Here is an example that Verizon provided. If the box detects the users “cuddling” then they might show “a commercial for a romantic getaway vacation, a commercial for a contraceptive, a commercial for flowers, a commercial including a trailer for an upcoming romantic comedy movie.” Now I think we’re getting a bit creepy and I can definitely see potential for abuse and even disaster here. The porn industry will probably be all over this one!
It is already far too easy to hack into private webcams and online industrial cameras. There are going to be plenty of techies, much like those who tore apart the Xbox 360, Wii and PS3 to learn how it works, who are willing and able to break through any kind of hardware digital rights or other encryption systems. Oh, and by the way, Microsoft’s Xbox 360 Kinect system already uses a camera to detect your motion and they have filed a patent application to also be able to recognize objects as well as individual faces or voices. What could possibly go wrong with that? Cameras and/or microphones in your home that are controlled by a third party are probably not in your best interest, especially if you are a celebrity who likes to take nude photos in the privacy of your home and upload them to the cloud.
I rarely watch commercials now that I have digital video recorders in every room, and was actually hoping we could finally get rid of commercials some day, except for the really funny or entertaining ones that are worth watching. The best Superbowl commercials come to mind. In fact, I would probably even watch a show that consists of nothing more than really good advertisements, but they would have to be entertaining.
Instead, however, we may find that companies expect us to pay for our entertainment with even greater intrusion into our personal lives. If you watch video online, you already know that you can’t skip through the advertising. Despite the advances of the DVR, we are losing our ability to skip through advertising as we watch more content online or streamed to our TV from a cloud-based server. Freedom to watch what we want will be increasingly limited or will come at a cost, unless of course we are willing to trade some more of our privacy.
You know those “smart” gas and electricity meters that have been installed in tens of millions of homes? They collect detailed information about your power usage and transmit it to the utility companies, which helps to reduce their monitoring and billing costs. One benefit to you is that you may be able to take advantage of lower rates for usage outside of peak electricity hours. However, there are also potential disadvantages.
These devices collect more than simple electricity usage. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the data can also be used to reconstruct a household’s activities: when people wake up, when they come home, when they go on vacation, and maybe even when they take a hot bath. Since the data is transmitted wirelessly, it can be intercepted by smart criminals who want to stake out the home. Security professionals know that smart meters and their communications networks are vulnerable to a variety of attacks.
Police in central Ohio have been filing at least 60 subpoenas every single month for the energy-use records of those that they suspect are growing pot in their homes because growers tend to use more electricity than normal. But sometimes, they mistakenly target homes that use more energy for other reasons, such as computer usage for Bitcoin mining.
Here are some other potential rewards we might be asked to accept for surrender of more privacy. Health insurance companies will offer lower rates if we wear monitors to measure blood sugar and fat levels and our activity throughout the day. They will also sell this information to companies offering diet and fitness products if you are not in the best health.
Auto insurance companies will offer lower rates by tracking where we live, work, and drive and correlating it with neighborhood crime statistics to assess our level of risk for violence or robbery. They will also sell this information to local businesses who might want to entice you to visit their store on your way by.
Online businesses and credit card companies will track our overall spending, whether or not we are repeat customers, how often we return products, how frequently we file chargeback claims, and how much trouble we are, in order to determine how good a customer we really are. It would be similar to a credit report except it would measure our value as a customer. They will sell this to businesses that might increase their prices just for those consumers who do not have the best ratings or a business may even refuse to do business with them if there is a high risk of loss. eBay has tried to accomplish this through user feedback and ratings, but most people seem afraid to leave a bad rating, since the other person will usually retaliate.
As a business owner myself, I understand that some customers are really just giant pains in the ass and not worth the business, but I usually don’t know this until it is too late. Other business owners have told me that they already sometimes increase their price quotes for certain ethnic groups simply because they are well known as hagglers who will never pay full price. I know this sounds discriminatory, but it seems to go on all the time as a way of dealing with cultural differences in buying behavior. With real data to back up whether or not someone is a good customer, it would now become legal to charge based on consumer value and risk ratings.