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.

NEXT: LAPD Acquires Two Drones

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  1. “Whether the U[niversal] L[ife] C[hurch] is a church or not, and whatever its belief system may be, compared to other online “religions” that enable people to pay a small fee, obtain a certificate of ordination and then perform religious wedding ceremonies, it seems practically mainstream. There is, for instance, the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a religious group comprised of atheists, which, upon the payment of a $20 fee, will make an online applicant a “pastafarian minister.” Then there is Dudeism, also referred to the Church of the Latter Day Dude, which portends to be a religious philosophy based on the protagonist in the Coen Brothers’ cult classic The Big Lebowski. One can be ordained online for free and be authorized to perform weddings as a Dudeist Priest.

    “Fortunately, this court need not wade into the treacherous waters of attempting to determine what is a “real” religion and what is not, something that would seem to “necessarily involve an impermissible inquiry into religious doctrine or practice”…. Given the finding that … the parties’ purported marriage is invalid because it was “an absolute nullity” under the law of the jurisdiction where it took place, it is not of great moment whether Dr. Arbeitman was legally entitled under New York law to solemnize the marriage.”


    1. Context of the case: “a license-less marriage supposedly solemnized in what can only be described as a “pseudo-Jewish” wedding ceremony conducted at a Mexican beach resort by a New York dentist who became a Universal Life Church minister on the internet solely for the purpose of performing weddings for friends and relatives.”

      1. I have a friend who did that in NJ. Got an online ordination (I forget what denomination it was) so that he could solemnize the wedding of a couple of college classmates.

  2. Maybe it was growing up with parents with high-profile (within their industry, not celebrity stuff) jobs, but I was taught from a young age to always assume I was being recorded. Privacy is dead.

    Connect to the internet through a VPN, encrypt everything, and use strong passwords. Not much else you can do unless you want to enter the realm of the actually paranoid.

    1. In my professional life, I was always taught that. The principle was “don’t do anything at work you wouldn’t want your mother to know or be on the front page of the New York Times.” That is a good way to think because it helps you remain ethical. Unless you are on the Aspy scale, the fact that you would be embarrassed for people to know about something you are doing at work is almost always a pretty good clue that you are doing something unethical and are would be embarrassed because you know it is.

      And while it may be true that that rule must now apply to our private lives, I really don’t like it. All eliminating privacy in our personal lives will do is allow people to judge and punish others. Really, what do you gain from knowing someone’s private thoughts and habits beyond voyeuristic pleasure and an excuse to condemn or look down upon them? A world without privacy is a world where people censor themselves and where no one is ever or at best rarely judged by the merits of their actions and are instead judged by their faults, oddities.

      Maybe if there really is no privacy the information will overwhelm us such that we won’t be able to do that. If everyone is weird or does something out of the norm, effectively no one does. If not, we face a pretty oppressive and horrible future where all of us are forced to censor and judge our thoughts and actions at all times for fear of social approbation. That is a pretty dark place to be.

      1. If everyone is weird or does something out of the norm, effectively no one does. If not, we face a pretty oppressive and horrible future where all of us are forced to censor and judge our thoughts and actions at all times for fear of social approbation.

        If the three guys in front of me in line at Starbucks this morning are typical, I think we are well down the road to everyone is weird/kinky in their own way. If everyone is weird, no one is weird. People will be less able to judge or punish the individual for being weird.

      2. Never put in writing what you can say over da phone. Never say over da phone what you can say in person. And never say in person what you can leave unsaid. Capisce?

  3. I’m also reminded of Winston’s fascination that the inner party was allowed to turn off big brother, at least for short periods of time. That will be the real privilege of the elite within the next 10-20 years.

    1. Already here. You don’t remember how indignant feinstein got when she found out that maybe the NSA was listening to her too?

  4. “What kind of a world we’ll have from now on, I don’t know, I
    can’t tell, but the world we know has been destroyed completely. Until
    now, every custom, every habit, every tiniest way of life has always
    taken a certain amount of privacy for granted, but that’s all gone

    He saluted each of the three with elaborate formality.

    “You have created a new world among the three of you. I congratulate
    you. Happy goldfish bowl to you, to me, to everyone, and may each of
    you fry in hell forever.”

    Isaac Asimov

      1. Liked it better when it was called E for Effort.

  5. 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.

    So why do I need to get up….can’t I just send the phone?

    1. And how is that a “privacy” issue if she was going to tell me anyway?

    1. Next, they’ll just ration life. Lefties always do.

      1. They don’t have enough gas to fire up the ovens.

        1. Bayonets don’t need reloading.

    2. This made it into the news?

      Huh, the Koch brothers must be intervening down there.

  6. For the most part, what’s disappearing isn’t privacy, as much as the assumption that you can leak information about yourself without it being collected. In turn, that has led people to be more careful about what they do or don’t share.

    1. Yes and no. Sure, you still have privacy as long as you never do anything involving another person and take great care to leave no trace on the internet, but that is pretty thin gruel. The fact is that I can’t have a conversation with someone, even a family member, and have any assurance that I am not being recorded someway and that the family member or someone else won’t someday use the conversation against me.

      If our “privacy” is restricted to what goes on in our own heads and no more, I don’t think we really have any meaningful privacy left.

      1. That never existed. The other person could always report what you said. The only difference now is you cant lie and deny it.

        1. I think the main difference now is that machine learning techniques can now use large amounts of aggregated data to somewhat accurately infer things you never said.

    1. Sorry, dude, but they’re up 2-0 at this point.

  7. Everyone can surveil everyone else, most especially including the activities of government functionaries

    Brin is ridiculously naive here.

    Jim Bell had the balls to do this:

    Bell had conducted sousveillance against Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents, using public databases and legally obtained CD-ROMs,[36] “to let them know that surveillance can be done in both directions.”[34] Over a six-month period, Bell also compiled evidence of what he alleged was illegal surveillance of him by a government agency.[34] In the days leading up to his arrest, he claimed that the agency had unlawfully installed a covert listening device in his home and a tracking device in his car,[34] something the ATF admitted doing during the subsequent trial.[36] The ATF stated that it had planted a covert GPS system in Bell’s car and that it had tracked the movements of his Nissan Maxima in real time.[36]

    1. Bell pleaded not guilty to violating 18 U.S.C. section 2281, a law prohibiting the intimidation of family members of federal agents and some forms of stalking.[34] The charges specified that Bell had performed Internet background checks on federal agents he asserted were harassing him, and Bell defended his actions by saying he was using public records to defend against what he saw as harassment by government officials.[14][38] Journalist Declan McCullagh wrote, “[Bell] says, and a good number of observers agree, that the Feds are prosecuting him for doing what an investigative reporter does: Compiling information from publicly available databases, documenting what’s happening, and so on. This case could set a precedent that affects the First Amendment privilege of journalists.”[39]

      but ultimately it didn’t end well for him. Still, I commend his determination and conviction.

      1. I commend his determination and conviction.

        There what you did I see.

  8. I still feel that any discussion of this should mention David Brin’s “The Transparent Society”, also, Scott McNealy was the founder and CEO of Sun (big computer maker for you kids). Famous answer about if they would get mandatory drug testing at Sun, he said he hadn’t decided if they were going to be forbidden or compulsory, when he made up his mind, he’d make an announcement (the founder who wrote the software famously had pot in his desk for anyone who felt the need).

    1. *waves hand*

      That was the old silicon valley.

      Now it’s just a bunch of millennials riding around on Segways in brightly lit, playfully decorated offices.

      1. Funny you mention that. After Oracle’s acquisition, Sun’s Menlo Park campus was sold to Facebook and I imagine some people probably are using Segways due to its size.

  9. There is comfort and hope. Everyone who is able to read this article NOW, will be dead in the 21st Century. This includes hefty lefty as well as righteous righty types, and whatever other ideological categories remain. No exceptions.

    1. Do you know something the rest of us don’t?

      1. The end is nigh!

        1. Will you be dead in the 21st Century or not?

          My point was not “the end is nigh!”. That is your sarcastic response to my comment.

          My point is: that if one does not like to live in a world of “slim to zero” privacy, because of advances in surveillance technology, then at least they will not have to put up with it indefinitely.

          1. So you have a date and time for this far-in-the-future catastrophe?

            1. gaoxlaen,

              Hi there Shit for brains.

              You most be another one of those dimwits with reading comprehension problems.

              Where in my original comment did I set dates for anything, much less a catastrophe? Show me where I said that you dumb fuck!

              All I said was that if a person who is actually reading this article now (which means they would have to be able to read, which excludes babies), will no doubt be dead in this century.

              Therefore, if the lack of privacy gets worse, at least they will be dead in this century, and obviously won’t have to put up with it.

              It was obviously a sarcastic comment. However, you, and those of your ilk are too stupid to catch those things.

              Have a nice evening, you ass chuck dumbo. Fuck off.

      2. Will you be dead in the 21st Century of not?

        1. It is the 21st century. You’re a jeanyus.

      3. WDATPDIM,

        Will you be dead in the 21st Century or not?

        1. There are people who have lived to be over 120 years old. It is quite possible that someone who has read this will reach the 22nd century, especially with improving medical techniques and the resultant increase in life expectancies.

          So no, there are “no exceptions”, unless there is a world-ending cataclysm.

          1. *aren’t “no exceptions”

          2. Mandy iz building ze doomsday device!

            1. Are you ready for it?

          3. You will live to be 200 years old.

            1. Crap, there goes retirement.

            2. I will be dead in the 21st century, but I’m already in my 50s.

              It’s entirely possible that, say, a 12-year-old reading this now could live into the 22nd century. He/she would only have to live to be 99.

              1. Whatever you say, asshole. At least you will be dead won’t you asshole. That’s what really counts. Suffice to say, that by the time they are in their 50s, most 12-year-olds will probably be assholes just like you.

  10. I see the road-guy is here spreading enlightenment. Or something.

    1. Sevo,

      That’s right. And if you don’t like it, why don’t you use some of your influence at Reason headquarters, or your connections with the Koch Brothers, to have me kicked off the site? Until that time, I plan to keep posting on this site until I am banned from it.

      1. On The Road To Mandalay|6.8.14 @ 10:00PM|#
        That’s right. And if you don’t like it, why don’t you use some of your influence at Reason headquarters, or your connections with the Koch Brothers, to have me kicked off the site?”

        Uh, you seem to be laboring under more confusion than is obvious. I have no influence here.
        “Until that time, I plan to keep posting on this site until I am banned from it.”

        Goody for you. Idjits proving themselves to be idjits is of the attractions here. I certainly have no desire that you be banned. I don’t give a hoot; you’re amusing.

  11. My folks grew up in a town of 2,000 people. The local paper published a gossip column that listed who was invited to Sunday dinner with whom and what was served. Practically anyone in town could predict where you would be in a year with 90% accuracy. News traveled fast, and not just because your neighbors were listening to your phone calls on the party line. There was no privacy. Fast forward 60 years and now we just live in a small town of 7 billion–the only difference is that nowadays you can’t move away.

  12. Not all that far felched? Geets Romo.

  13. That is OK because there are ways to make the naked more acceptable and this was discovered hundreds of years ago. People who are naked are easier to accept if they are called nude. Privacy and nakedness are related like personal and nude are related. The can be exactly the same thing depending on the speaker.

  14. “. . . (Current), former Futurist . . . ”
    Too much head scratching so early in the article.

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