– Child-tracking wristbands edge us closer to a dystopian future (Guardian, Jan 10, 2014):
Parents will soon be able to track, log and judge the every movement of their offspring. God help those children
For those who think the NSA the worst invader of privacy, I invite you to share an afternoon with Aiden and Foster, two 11-year-old boys, as they wrap up a Friday at school. Aiden invites his friend home to hang out and they text their parents, who agree to the plan.
As they ride on the bus Foster’s phone and a sensor on a wristband alert the school and his parents of a deviation from his normal route. The school has been notified that he is heading to Aiden’s house so the police are not called.
As they enter the house, the integrated home network recognises Aiden and pings an advisory to his parents, both out at work, who receive the messages on phones and tablets.
The system also sends Foster’s data – physical description, address, relatives, health indicators, social media profile – to Aiden’s parents, who note he has a laptop. Might the boys visit unsuitable sites? No, because Foster’s parental rating access, according to his profile, is limited to PG13, as is Aiden’s.
Foster spots a cookie jar and reaches in. Beep beep! His wristband vibrates to warn him the cookies contain gluten, and he is allergic.
Aiden’s mother notes this and consults a menu of her fridge and pantry, all connected to the network, for non-gluten ingredients. There aren’t enough so she orders a gluten-free pizza.
The boys turn on the TV. Rather, it turns itself on as Aiden approaches and it lists his favourite channels. The TV notes the boys have a basketball, which has a sensor, and so suggests an NBA game. As they watch, tailored advertising invites Aiden to put a Miami Heat shirt on a personal wishlist connected to a chain store. He does so and a ping is sent to his mother, who simultaneously receives a reminder of the date of his birthday.
The network notes there is only 90 minutes left of sunlight left and that Aiden has not completed his 120 minutes of daily exercise. It shuts down the TV and gives the boys three exercise options. They choose to shoot hoops in the yard. Aiden’s mum receives an alert that they have left the house – leaving the lights on. She can track Aiden’s pulse and blood pressure as he plays.
Welcome to the future of parenting, as envisaged by Cisco Systems at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week. Robert Barlow, a marketing executive, presented the scenario with animation, graphs and statistics to industry professionals.
“The technology for all this already exists,” he beamed, holding a real basketball with a sensor. Cisco can aggregate data from multiple sources to create an “orchestration layer”, he said, which will help the Internet of Everything generate trillions of dollars in the next decade.
The audience of executives and technicians from America, Europe and Asia got the message. Big data, big bucks.
What of Aiden and Foster? You could say, lucky them. Protected from predators and pornography, nudged away from harmful food and obesity, the benefits are obvious.
I say, God help them. What sort of childhood is it with every move tracked, scrutinised, logged, judged? Where you cannot wander, try something new, be spontaneous – be yourself – without issuing a beeping alert from wearable, connected technology? This is helicopter parenting at its most stultifying, a constant, hovering presence.
A perilous environment would justify such surveillance. When I was the Guardian’s correspondent in Baghdad in 2005 I considered tagging myself with the then relatively crude electronic devices (and after I was kidnapped I dearly wished I had).
But Cisco, and hundreds of other companies at CES, are pitching their products – tiny cameras, wearable sensors, connectivity services – mainly at the US and other rich countries where abductions and violent crime are mercifully rare.
A parent’s job is to worry about his or her child so the line between responsible supervision and cloying surveillance can be blurry, especially as childhood gives way to adolescence. What chance a fumble behind the bike shed with the Stasi waiting at home?
But children (and pets) are just the beginning, a wedge to introduce the technology. Adults are targets too. We are already doing it. Older people are given sensors so distant offspring can track health indicators.
“Old people often resist,” Stuart Sikes, the head of Park Associates, a consulting company specialising in emerging consumer technology products and services, told me. “But younger people tend to love this technology. It’s a polarised market.”
Since 2009 AT&T’s FamilyMap service lets you track relatives through their phone.
New technology is making it ever cheaper, easier, more thorough – and culturally acceptable. “Amazing things happen when you connect the previously unconnected,” gushed another evangelist at Cisco’s exhibition. “Everything you do generates data. The more we build these connections, the more we build relationships.”
Nonsense. A ping to your phone saying your spouse has deviated from the usual route home may or may not be useful information but does not deepen the relationship, no matter what they’re up to (if cheating you can Google their location, monitor their pulse for acceleration, maybe dispatch a coitus interruptus pizza).
Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA revealed ubiquitous state snooping, something anticipated by George Orwell and Ray Bradbury half a century ago. But the greatest danger to privacy is not the government but ourselves. Google, Facebook and Twitter have built empires on the fact we prefer convenience to privacy. In a culture of reality television and narcissism masked as social media we sleepwalked into our own Truman Shows. Cisco’s vision is just another incremental step.
Dave Eggers’ recent novel The Circle imagines a dystopian future where an all-powerful corporation plants tiny cameras everywhere, and on individuals, so that all events and conversations are instantly, publicly available online. The naive protagonist, Mae Holland, embraces the company’s mantras: secrets are lies; sharing is caring; privacy is theft.
We are not there, and hopefully never will be. Much of the technology displayed in Las Vegas offers real benefits – healthier and safer lives, more fun – and should be embraced.
But a needed conversation about limits is not happening. Neither the industry nor consumers are paying sufficient heed to the erosion of privacy and the dwindling possibility of opting out, of eluding the unblinking, all-seeing basilisk gaze of extraordinary technology.
Thanks to Snowden the NSA is learning that just because it can do something doesn’t mean it should. The rest of us need to learn that too.