Will privacy become a luxury only the wealthy can afford?

Jon Evans |

Yesterday I walked from Cambodia into Thailand. On the way out of Cambodia, I was fingerprinted; on the way into Thailand, I was photographed. While I waited for the train to Bangkok I read legendary hacker Jamie Zawinski’s tale of how the powers that be “wanted to mandate that I surveil all of my customers, and turn that information over to the Government without a warrant” in exchange for getting a liquor license.

He goes on: “this is a standard condition that SFPD is putting on all new liquor licenses! …when the people and their elected lawmakers unambiguously say ‘no’ on a civil liberties issue, the unelected SFPD and ABC career bureaucrats think they can force a ‘yes’ anyway. It’s disgusting.”

It is. But if you think the war on privacy and the rise of the surveillance state is bad enough in the First World, just imagine how bad it will be in nations where the people are poor, their governments have few checks and balances, and there’s no tradition of civil liberties. And surveillance technology gets cheaper much faster than the world’s poorest get wealthier. It may not be long before privacy – anyprivacy – will begin to feel, seem, and even cost like a luxury.

Worse yet, this may not seem like a bad thing – at first.

About 50 feet from the bustling main drag in Cambodia’s wealthiest town, I stumbled across the school photographed above, a one-room, benches-and-blackboards building straight out of Little House on the Prairie. I’m sure it’s quite nice for what it is, but I couldn’t help but think: “No tech at all? How much better it would be if there were at least some modern technology in every school like this; not thedeluded pointlessness of One Laptop Per Child, but something more like Ten Smartphones Per Teacher. Of course, they’d be so valuable, you’d have to worry about theft…unless you had some central database that tracked their locations, and would disable them when stolen, so they wouldn’t be valuable any more…”

And then I realized I’d just invented a system that centralized government control of smartphones. Would such a system stop at phones in schools? Or would governments insist on extending it to control every smartphone in the country, and their content too? Voila! Centralized repression and censorship straight out of Orwell. Of course they probably would; and of course in most nations there’d be no EFF to try to stop them.

Similarly, corruption is the scourge of the poor world; transparency is the enemy of corruption; and better surveillance technology leads to greater transparency. It is one way, for the most part, so the rich will be able to watch the poor without being watched themselves. But ubiquitous cameras and smaller drones will still bring down more and more small-fry corrupt bureaucrats, the ones who steal thousands…while those who feed on millions can buy enough privacy that their parasitical businesses continue to thrive.

“Hey, that’s fine by the Finn, Moll. You’re only paying by the second.”

They sealed the door behind him and Molly turned one of the white chairs around and sat on it, chin resting on crossed forearms. `We talk now. This is as private as I can afford.’

— William Gibson, Neuromancer

It’s possible that you won’t have to explicitly pay for privacy in the near future. We in the rich world may manage to eke out a win in the legal and regulatory battle against the onrushing panopticon. But even if so, I don’t see how the poor world can succeed. It can’t be long before privacy becomes, like clean water or reliable power, something that only the rich can afford.