5 reasons we're losing the fight for online privacy

The evidence is all around us that the battle will eventually be lost

In December 2013, Edward Snowden appeared on British television to exhort the world to think about the "privacy of the average person" and fight against the surveillance state. He was too late. Here are five reasons why the battle for online privacy will eventually be lost.

1. The path of least resistance

"Address please?" This two-word phrase is fast becoming the de facto response from salespeople the world over when you present your goods for payment. At first you were probably taken aback and asked, "Why?" The arguments lobbed your way are well rehearsed: "We might need to contact you if the concert is canceled," "It's for emergencies" and the oddly reassuring yet brazenly honest, "It's for marketing." Over time my will to resist has wilted.

At a well-known London theater recently, I turned up in person and paid cash for tickets. When the inevitable questions came and I was asked to divulge my personal details, I pondered the arguments for arguing, briefly considered lying, felt sorry for the person in the kiosk whose job it was to extract the information and promptly sang like a canary. Am I a spineless coward? Possibly, but do you always want to be that person holding up the queue and bellowing forth a discourse on the right to privacy while demanding to see the manager? I crave an easy life.

Now, it's not that I don't trust the Old Vic to look after my details -- I'm sure its IT security is impeccable, and I'll probably enjoy whatever they send me in the post -- but at some point in the future, the current owners of the business might just sell up to new proprietors with a far less healthy attitude toward data protection. Which leads me to . . .

2. The value of data

It's probably happened on a small scale already, but allow me to make a confident albeit not very brave prediction: Within a decade or so, a multimillion-dollar business deal will conclude and a reasonably well-known concern -- it could be an insurance company, a restaurant franchise, a gym or something else -- will change hands, and the majority of the price paid will not be for the bricks and mortar and assorted other physical assets but instead for the micro-SD card holding the vendor's data.

Those people who used to run postal catalog services back in the '70s made tiny profits selling chocolate fondue sets but got very rich selling their customer lists. They and their modern-day counterparts, the price comparison sites, understand this concept very well: In the long run, your name and address are worth more than a Nautilus Stairmaster. Much more.

3. The pervasiveness of technology

Ford executive Jim Farley got a red face recently when in an unguarded moment he let slip that thanks to GPS devices in its vehicles, his company knew "what you're doing ... and when you're doing it." The hapless VP soon rolled back on what he'd said, and personally I'm prepared to believe that Farley overstated the case. But the point is not that a corporation is storing my journey data as a matter of course but that the ability to do so is merely mouse clicks away.

Those with long memories will recall the FBI's attempt to snoop via GM's OnStar system. It was snuffed out via court action but, my, what a precedent. Just disable the GPS, I hear you cry! Thanks, it had occurred to me, but in the back of my mind I hold doubts that checking a box on the dashboard screen means it's really, really off, and off for good.

Short of ripping the box out of the bodywork and thereby invalidating warranties, that GPS is ensconced like a tiny Jason Bourne in sleeper mode just waiting one day to be remotely activated or, worse, hacked into and turned to the dark side. Cheap sensors and ubiquitous Wi-Fi mean the so-called Internet of things will soon take off. And when that happens it won't just be your car that acts as a giant tracker, but your kettle, your TV and very likely your clothes. Believe it or not, we are closing in on the day when your hair can be hacked.

4. The stunting of development

A few years ago, some enterprising developers hit on a cool new iPhone feature that they embedded into their app. It let you take a photo using the volume button. Users loved it, but Apple didn't, and the app was yanked from iTunes.

Compare this to the world of personal computing, with its relatively open architecture and highly transparent software market. If you've a mind to turn your PC into a Web server, router or fancy coffee-vending machine, go right ahead. And if you don't like the operating system it runs, choose another or, better yet, write your own from scratch; that's what Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux, did. Internet guru Jonathan Zittrain refers to the PC's flexible ecosystem as "generative." This is a reflection of the industry's hobbyist origins, and it's this quality that has been responsible to date for some of the greatest advances in computing.

If Sergey Brin had had only an iPad to play around with, there would be no Google today. Sadly, the writing is on the wall for the venerable PC. The global sales graph for 2013 resembled a ski slope, with a steep fall of 10%. One research group called it the "worst decline ever." Meanwhile, it's boom time for tablets and other mobile devices, with one analyst predicting parity between Apple device sales and PCs coming as soon as this year.

Whether you see a problem with that might depend on whether you agree with free-software guru Richard Stallman, who has described Apple products as "jails made cool." I don't go that far -- there is much to laud about the iTunes infrastructure -- but I see his point. And the fact is that the next great technological advances in privacy are unlikely to come from folks who shut you down just because of non-standard use of a volume knob.

5. The coming demographic deluge, a.k.a. the clincher

Have you watched a 12-year-old get a new smartphone? Try it sometime. Most of them will have sent their first Snapchat before the cellophane even hits the floor. Not for them the laborious rigmarole of going into settings and turning off location services or disabling automatic logins and password storing. No, they want to use the features, and they want them now. And it's not because of ignorance. Today's youth are a tech-savvy bunch and know full well the consequences of power-using unhardened devices. Alas, the truth is far more prosaic: They're simply cool with it.

The 20-year-olds of the 2020s will be the first generation to have grown up with extremely smart apps, constant interconnectedness and defaults that will eventually morph from wide open to gaping chasms. Many of them will hit university without having even seen something as quaintly customizable as a PC. Facebooking a friend on the train while simultaneously updating Foursquare will be as second nature to them as editing AUTOEXEC.BAT was for that dwindling band of brothers who can remember Windows 3.11. Fast forward a couple more decades and the angsty teen you see today thumbing her phone under the bed covers with Black Veil Brides pounding out of the speakers will be CEO of the next Buzzfeed. Her peers and colleagues will all possess the same mind-set: Sharing is good.

Meanwhile, we oldies worrying about snooping will be reduced over time to an ever-dwindling demographic. You'll still be able to spot us, of course; look for the grey-haired moaners, hobbling along to their evening ACLU meetings and making rude signs to the CCTV on every street corner. But between today's privacy campaigners and the tweens, whom do you think Mark Zuckerberg gets all misty-eyed about when planning his product road maps? Didn't someone once say being ignored was worse than being dead? I'm afraid if you're reading this and you're over 25, you're already approaching irrelevance.

The technology of tomorrow is being tailored toward those who are comfortable with its ethos of openness. Increasingly, younger users and manufacturers are bouncing ideas off each other in a mutually beneficial circle, all the while innovating away from privacy. Those in the creative technology business who don't want to participate in this love-in will find their customer base shrinking or, like Ed Snowden's email provider, they'll find themselves on the wrong end of government pressure and simply decide it's easier to fold.

Paul Coletti is a London-based journalist, former IT consultant and blogger.

Read more about privacy in Computerworld's Privacy Topic Center.

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