Welcome to the Naked Future

Celebrating the death of privacy


"You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it," declared tech guru Scott McNealy back in 1999. Fifteen years later McNealy's statement is no longer factually controversial.

We all give up gigabytes of personal information to Facebook, Foursquare, Google, AT&T—and that's just the voluntary stuff. In the past year, former government contractor Edward Snowden has revealed that our own government has been engaging in pervasive domestic spying, keeping track of everyone we've called, for how long we spoke, and from where. Privacy looks increasingly like a quaint mid-20th century relic.

In his new book, The Naked Future: What Happens in a World That Anticipates Your Every Move? (Current), former Futurist Deputy Editor Patrick Tucker explores a more positive take on how we can personally use the megabytes of information generated and collected by our digital paraphernalia to help us live smarter, healthier, and better lives, and maybe even regain some measure of privacy. Tucker, who is now technology editor at Atlantic Media's Defense One, argues that all that data will enable us to predict and thus take more control over our futures. The Internet of Things is being born as the world is increasingly loaded up with gadgets that can sense where they are and can report what is happening around them to any other device connected to the network.

To illustrate just how naked we all soon will be, Tucker opens with a vignette from the near future in which your cellphone wakes you with a text message alerting you that on your way to work you will run into an old girlfriend who is going to tell you the happy news that she is engaged. The phone tells to you to act surprised at the news. This scenario unfolds as predicted, but instead of waiting for her to tell you, you blurt out your congratulations. As it happens, she not yet made her new romantic status public and is quite alarmed by your mistimed felicitations. The phone did warn you to act surprised.

Tucker then explores the early technologies that are combining to make this future a reality. Consider how the phone knew that you would run into your old girlfriend. Tucker discusses database investigations conducted by University of Rochester researcher Adam Sadelik to predict where people will be in the future using Bayesian software techniques. Parsing a database of 26 million tweets, of which 7.6 million were geotagged, from 1.2 million people in Los Angeles and New York, Sadelik tried to learn about the locations of people who did not geotag their tweets. He found that if non-geotaggers have two real friends who do allow their tweets to be mapped, his system "can predict your location at any moment (down to 328 feet and within a 20 minute time frame) with 47 percent accuracy." That's nearly a 50-50 chance of catching you, even if you think you're opting out.

In another experiment, Microsoft researcher John Krumm persuaded several hundred people to carry GPS trackers around with them broadcasting their locations every few seconds for six years. Using this data, Sadelik and Krumm created a model that could predict "a subject's location with higher than 80 percent accuracy up to eighty weeks in advance." The accuracy of the predictions is down to the block and hour at which people will be a year and a half in advance. Using the geolocation data that we and our friends will increasingly generate, phones should be able to alert you when you're likely to run into someone you know on your way to work.

What about your former girlfriend's unannounced engagement? Tucker delves into the extensive research on the data being amassed by online dating services. Right now such companies rely chiefly on questionnaires to create profiles. But researchers are developing data on how people actually interact. For example, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Alex Pentland has developed a sociometer that records the unconscious signals we all give off during conversations.

Pentland identifies four main signaling types during conversation: influence, mimicry, activity, and consistency. Measuring these "honest signals" predicts with 73 percent accuracy, for example, how likely a woman is to give out her phone number after a speed date. Loading a discreet sociometric app onto your smartphone is not all that far-fetched.

Tucker also reports research by chief scientist Helen Fisher, who is seeking data to show that your dating personality is a function of your brain chemistry. Fisher identifies the curiosity-driven as influenced primarily by dopamine. Cautious temperaments, she concludes, are shaped by serotonin, analytical ones by testosterone, and empathetic personalities by estrogen.

Fisher aims to create an app that "uses what we know from evolutionary psychology, body language, linguistic studies, that really sums up a deeper understanding of who you're talking to." If you care to know, the apps will also tell you when you're being a jerk.

In the naked future, your phone has an app that keeps track of how your acquaintances are faring, text­ing you tidbits of information (gossip) from time to time. In the case of the former girlfriend, the settings on the relevant app trigger periodic Internet scans to scavenge new data about people from your past. It came across the former girlfriend's dating profile and the profiles of those with whom she has been spending time, and so forth. Combining these data generated a prediction regarding her impending nuptials.

Tucker foresees ubiquitous scanners that can detect and decode the genetics of disease organisms in real time. Other sensors will monitor your body's health by weighing molecules. Collecting and correlating big data will hone the accuracy of diagnoses and enable physicians to design personalized treatments for each patient.

Data on the viewing habits of people will enable scriptwriters to craft more entertaining movies and video games. Apps may crunch your spending habits and warn you that there is an 80 percent chance you will experience buyer's remorse if you purchase a particular item.

Despite the many benefits detailed by Tucker, the naked future implicates some seriously dystopian downsides. The chief issue is just how naked the government and its functionaries will be. Initial signs on that front are not good.

In Rule of Law, Misrule of Men (2010), Harvard professor Elaine Scarry outlines how the misbegotten PATRIOT Act, passed in panic following the 9/11 atrocities, has turned the constitutional understanding of private citizens and open government upside down. "Our inner lives become transparent, and the workings of the government become opaque," Scarry writes.

Tucker calls for more transparency and accountability for the police and other government agencies, but doesn't really explore how that might be achieved. A better guide to preventing government surveillance abuse is David Brin's smart 1998 book, The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom? Like Tucker, Brin foresaw a world with ubiquitous sensors and vast databases filled with information detailing our lives, habits, tastes, and personal histories. How to handle it? Radical transparency.

Everyone can surveil everyone else, most especially including the activities of government functionaries. Brin set out a scenario in which every citizen can access the feeds to every camera operating in public spaces. In this future, cameras "are banned from some indoor places but not from police headquarters! There any citizen may tune in on bookings, arraignments, and especially the camera control room itself, making sure that the agents on duty look out for violent crime, and only crime." After all, if the police have nothing to hide, why should they mind if their work is monitored by citizens?

For the rest of us, Brin believes that we will embrace social customs granting each other privacy based on "mutually assured surveillance." If I don't watch you, you won't watch me.

The naked future will not be utopia, but Tucker makes a good case that its benefits will greatly offset its drawbacks. Especially if you pay close attention to the advice from your cellphone.