Smart Buildings

Can We Live in a Smarter World without Giving Up our Privacy?

"You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it," said the then CEO of Sun Microsystems, Scott McNealy, in 1999. Two key things have happened on this topic in the 18 years since his, then shocking, comments; we have less privacy and we seem to have accepted it. To say that we have accepted it is not to say we are happy about it. In fact most people would say they are not happy with the low level of privacy in the digital world, but yet their actions say the opposite. How can someone complain about a lack of privacy while maintaining a facebook account, or act disgruntled about the probable content in a ‘terms and conditions’ document, then accept it without reading it. They may not be happy, but they got over it. In recent years the monitoring of our lives has been taken to new levels. Once just concerned about our social media, web-searches, […]

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"You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it," said the then CEO of Sun Microsystems, Scott McNealy, in 1999. Two key things have happened on this topic in the 18 years since his, then shocking, comments; we have less privacy and we seem to have accepted it.

To say that we have accepted it is not to say we are happy about it. In fact most people would say they are not happy with the low level of privacy in the digital world, but yet their actions say the opposite. How can someone complain about a lack of privacy while maintaining a facebook account, or act disgruntled about the probable content in a ‘terms and conditions’ document, then accept it without reading it. They may not be happy, but they got over it.

In recent years the monitoring of our lives has been taken to new levels. Once just concerned about our social media, web-searches, emails and online shopping habits, we now have to think about privacy wherever we are, even at home. As part of the cyber-physical revolution and the internet of things (IoT) movement, our physical world is being enabled with the ability to sense, record and transmit information on the world around it.

Smart buildings are designed to sense your every step and smart homes are sold based on their ability to learn your behavior. This information is stored for “sometime” and could be accessed by the authorities or sold to anyone willing to pay. Don’t act surprised, you knew that already.

Google CEO, Eric Schmidt, said in 2006; "I think judgment matters. If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place. If you really need that kind of privacy, the reality is that search engines - including Google - do retain this information for some time and it's important, for example, that we are all subject in the United States to the Patriot Act and it is possible that all that information could be made available to the authorities."

No doubt Schmidt soon regretted his comments as soon after this he was given a multitude of examples of things you don’t want other people to know, but are completely acceptable behavior. As Bruce Schneier explained on his security blog the same year:

“We do nothing wrong when we make love or go to the bathroom. We are not deliberately hiding anything when we seek out private places for reflection or conversation. We keep private journals, sing in the privacy of the shower, and write letters to secret lovers and then burn them. Privacy is a basic human need.”

If Schneier is right and privacy is a basic human need, then why are so many of us so willing to give it up so easily? Three reasons come to mind; security, convenience and ignorance.

Ignorance could be the result of poor understanding through hidden or complex privacy information. Google CEO may say these things in an interview but are people signing up to Gmail explicitly told that their emails will be scanned and the information shared with authorities and advertisers? In a smart building do occupants and visitors really know what is being tracked and where that information goes?

In January last year, the UK’s Daily Telegraph newspaper installed heat and motion sensors underneath its employees’ desks to monitor their movement in the office. The stated intention was to use the information to create efficiencies. Employees, however, were not told about the devices, and when they found out they protested profusely. The devices were removed within a day after the National Union of Journalists declared they were carrying out “surveillance” on their staff.

Letting go of privacy for convenience is more of a trade off. If my smart home reduces my energy bills by 20% then I don’t mind it collecting information on my behavior, for example. However, that information does not have to be shared. If selling the information is part of a company’s business model, then where is the higher priced full-privacy option?

Our choice is often limited to smarter with less privacy, or dumber with more privacy. You could send real mail but email is more convenient, and you could quit your could great job because they have installed smart technology in the office. Are these really choices, are they fair, should people be held to ransom for desiring greater privacy?

Too often we hear the debate characterized as security versus privacy, when the real choice is liberty versus control. “Tyranny, whether it arises under threat of foreign physical attack or under constant domestic authoritative scrutiny, is still tyranny,” says Schneier. Liberty demands security without intrusion, both security and privacy. Governmental surveillance defines the police state and privacy is therefore something worth defending even if you have nothing to hide.

The first half of Scott McNealy’s infamous quote, “You have zero privacy anyway,” may not be technically correct but spoke honestly about the increasing surveillance of our lives. Whether we should “get over it” or not is a debate worth having.

It would be easy to accept our lack of privacy, enjoy the benefits of a smart digital world, but what sort of world are we creating? We could live in the woods and regain control over our personal information. Or we could continue to struggle for our digital privacy, insisting that we can live in a smarter world without giving up our basic rights.

Schneier proposes, “for if we are observed in all matters, we are constantly under threat of correction, judgment, criticism, even plagiarism of our own uniqueness. We become children, fettered under watchful eyes, constantly fearful that -- either now or in the uncertain future -- patterns we leave behind will be brought back to implicate us, by whatever authority has now become focused upon our once-private and innocent acts. We lose our individuality, because everything we do is observable and recordable.”

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