Researchers warn of Orwellian technology

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Researchers warn of Orwellian technology

The combination of ICT and pervasive computing could enable individual activity to be monitored even more closely than George Orwell imagined in his novel 1984, social scientists warn.

While users have reported digital privacy concerns in several surveys, they are not taking appropriate measures to protect themselves or their data, according to social psychologist Saadi Lahlou.

Describing a ‘privacy dilemma’ that is brought about by the fact that technology requires information to deliver better or customised service, Lahlou warns that such data may later be used in another context and against users’ interest.

Lahlou mentioned Gmail as an example of his personal experience with the privacy dilemma.

“I feel that it is actually not reasonable to leave all my mail in someone else’s hands; but I am, as most of us, taken in this privacy dilemma,” he told iTnews.

“It is such a good indexation service of my own mail and so easy to use that I prefer not to think about the possible consequences of misuse or accident.”

He referenced ‘the system’ of interconnected data-collection devices including mobile phones, Web sites and surveillance cameras that can search, analyse and predict the actions of individuals.

“We are creating a system that will be aware of all that we do … virtually from cradle to grave,” Lahlou wrote in the journal Social Science Information. “The system as a whole will know more about us than we know about ourselves.”

Besides the risks to individuals of having their data used inappropriately, Lahlou suggests that an interconnected system could pose dangers to culture and organisations also.

“Subjects who are aware of being constantly monitored with their actions traced will tend to behave exactly according to the rules, in what is called ‘agentic’ manner,” he explained.

“No rule can in every case exactly encompass the complexity of reality,” he told iTnews. “There is a need for some free space of initiative when one should go to adapt the rules to be more efficient.”

Lahlou highlighted common acts of lying to be polite and ‘playing with rules’ in a professional capacity as example situations in which privacy is necessary.

In such situations, technology that enables users to use different sets of information about themselves in different situations could be beneficial, he suggests, proposing a new definition of privacy, termed ‘face-keeping’.

“We all have many faces -- combinations of role and status -- but each one is used only in some settings,” he explained.

He suggests that a new set of guidelines be developed for system designers that emphasises what designers should do, rather than unrealistically focussing on control.

“We are all responsible for the world we build; it would be foolish to lock ourselves in a straightjacket of continuous control,” he told iTnews.

“But the user should not always the one who carries the burden of protection,” he said.

“[Companies] should include privacy in the design specification of the software they build or buy, and not merely consider this as a cumbersome constraint.”
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