For much of the developed world, the near future of IoT promises a fully connected and interactive physical environment. Smart home appliances (e.g., the Nest thermostat, smart fridges), AI assistants (e.g., Siri, Alexa, Google Home), self-driving cars, and Internet-connected home security systems are just a few of the existing and imminent technologies that are blurring the distinction between the cyber and physical worlds. These technologies unlock a rich design space of applications that will make the activities of day-to-day living more enjoyable, convenient and healthy for many.
These same technologies also pave the way towards an unprecedented mass surveillance infrastructure that could irrevocably alter human behavior and pose a serious threat to democracy.
It’s well known that the perception of being watched can produce a chilling effect on behavior. In the 1950s, the sociologist Erving Goffman identified that people have both “front stage” and “back stage” personalities. In other words, people behave differently when they believe others are watching than when they believe they are alone or with their most trusted loved ones. Front stage behaviors reflect internalized norms and social expectations, while back stage behaviors are free from those same norms and expectations. Our back stage personalities are the independent critical thinkers, the provocateurs, the free spirits.
In a fully connected environment, people may never believe that they are alone. Their social interactions with others may be filtered by the background knowledge that everything said and done may be logged and later audited. They may never have plausible deniability about where they are and what they were doing at any given moment.
The ensuing effects, on human behavior, of this always-on cyberphysical surveillance infrastructure is not yet fully understood. We are still only at the cusp of our transition into a fully cyber-physical world. The consequences of freely transmitting audio recordings of our homes to Amazon’s, or Apple’s, or Google’s servers for speech recognition will likely not be understood, at a visceral level, until we have another Snowden-esque revelation of abuse. We can have some educated guesses of how a mass surveillance infrastructure might affect behavior, though, based on evidence from studies of related phenomena.
In the communications and political sciences literature, there is a theory of human behavior that stipulates that individuals have a fear of isolation based on voicing opinions that they might perceive are unpopular — whether or not those perceptions reflect reality. This fear, in turn, quashes or at least highly discourages free speech which, in turn, can further add to this feeling of isolation and fear of speaking up. This theory, by Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, is known as the “spiral of silence” and it, along with the increasing ubiquity of always-on cyber physical systems, portends a dystopian future not unlike Orwell’s 1984 or Stephenson’s “zones of domination.”
There is reason to believe that in an always-on, fully connected environment, people may never be able to decompress into their backstage personalities. They may never feel empowered to voice new, possibly controversial and unpopular opinions. In turn, they may never be able to develop their ideas from a small spark into a larger movement. This could have disastrous effects for democratic societies that are founded on the notion of a free exchange of ideas. Arvind Narayanan, a professor at Princeton, put it tersely when he stated in a recent talk: “Poor privacy is a problem for democracy”. It must be protected as we enter a fully-connected cyber physical world.
Undoubtedly, a fully connected cyberphysical world is coming. It is even advantageous, in many ways. But it is imperative that we work towards both understanding the effects of these cyberphysical systems on human behavior and developing trustworthy protections against threats of mass surveillance in lockstep with any technical advances. The required efforts will be massive, and will likely work against market forces. But it’s important.
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