PRIVACY TAKES A BACK SEAT
Big Brother’s power grows every time you add a gadget
For Christmas my 26-year-old daughter gave me some white Tiles — square plastic cards you can put on your key chain and connect with your phone. You press the tile and your phone rings. Or whatever object you have synched it to such as a wallet, purse or passport.
I put one on my key chain and another in my purse and forgot about it before going to New Zealand on holidays with a girlfriend.
“I saw where you went, Mum,” my daughter said proudly when I got back.
I was a bit taken aback at the thought.
She had helped me set the Tiles and helpfully suggested she should also synch it with her phone. But she had also been able to use it to follow where I was going around New Zealand.
It was not exactly a Thelma and Louise shoot-the-lights-out vacation with a friend. Fortunately or unfortunately, we didn’t have anything to hide.
But it was still disconcerting to think my daughter was quietly following me as I moved from mobile phone tower to mobile phone tower across the North Island.
“So you could follow me wherever I went?” I asked.
“Not exactly. But it just showed the last places you had been,” she answered, as if that explained itself. Hmmm ... At the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week, there was much speculation about The Next Big Things in tech.
But as our resident family tech expert pointed out over Christmas lunch, the thing about technology these days is that we are adopting new things without really thinking about it.
It is not so much The Next Big Thing, he argued, but more an evolution of goods and gadgets and our digitally connected lives that will keep happening almost seamlessly, such as my self-tracking Tiles.
I would doubt whether the average person really knows what the Internet of Things means.
But before too long many of us will have Google Home or Alexas or similar versions in our lounge rooms or kitchens.
Of course, our resident family tech expert did bring an Alexa to Christmas dinner and we kept throwing questions at it (her?).
You had to ask it the right questions the right way but we quickly got used to it.
I could see that it would not be a big jump to have an Alexa-type “assistant” around the home to start telling it what to do and how to order the shopping. Or tell a home robot what to do.
But I also had a sneaking suspicion that a device could also start spying on you in your home — or at least be programmed to do so.
Did I want Alexa overhearing everything I might say at home?
Alexa-type monitors are al- ready being used in the US for home security. (The latest New Yorker features an ad for a white vertical slimline SimpliSafe, which describes itself as “a complete security arsenal. With motion sensors, glass-break sensors, entry sensors and a high-definition security camera” attached to a professional monitoring service.)
My tech-savvy family member’s point was made clearly when I came back into Sydney airport and went through immigration without talking to anyone, just looking at the cameras.
The use of facial recognition technology is transforming immigration queues. But as it takes our photos, we don’t even think about the technology and security issues it raises.
Government arms such as immigration and police around the world are embracing facial recognition but they don’t want to brag about it.
It was also driven home on a previous overseas trip with a girlfriend who lost her passport.
The high commission in the country we were in was insistent that we got her new photo done at a specially designated photo shop.
When we asked how long it would take for my friend to get a temporary passport we were told that it would depend whether the powers in Canberra would be able to use facial recognition techniques to check that she really was who she said she was. (She was).
Facial recognition is one of the next big things in our daily lives.
China is now one of the tech leaders of the world. Credit card companies such as HSBC are using facial recognition to allow people to validate their payment cards.
I was in China a few months ago in a supermarket set up by Alibaba. At the self-service checkout, shoppers would enter the goods they were buying on a screen and then smile at the camera for the bill to be charged to their credit card (or more likely their WeChat account).
More disconcertingly, foreign journalists are now being targeted in China using facial recognition. I spoke to one journalist in China who had attended a demonstration in Beijing. She was soon approached by police who knew her name and occupation and began questioning what she was doing.
When I raised this with our tech-savvy family member he told me local police were already looking at its potential.
Let’s say you have a known paedophile. Facial recognition technology could be used to check if they had come too close to a school.
But more broadly, it’s not hard to see facial recognition techniques being widely used by authorities to check out who is in a crowd and track criminals and persons of interest. Big Brother is already with us.
I am old enough to remember the fierce debate about the Australia Card, which was rejected because of its potential invasion of privacy.
But, in our tech-savvy world, debates about privacy have become a side issue as your friends and family insist on posting pictures of themselves and you at your home on Facebook, cheerfully tagging what you are doing and what your house looks like to their armies of followers around the world.
That said, Facebook and social media marketing is set to become one of the next big occupational sectors for the next generation of workers.
Now, where are my keys again?
Cricket fans pass under facial recognition cameras at the SCG during the fifth Ashes Test between Australia and England