A true global village: the end of privacy in so many ways

By Razib Khan | June 16, 2013 8:19 pm

Credit: Antonio Zulgaldia

Gina Kolata’s piece in The New York Times, Poking Holes in Genetic Privacy, is stirring a lot of debate. In the wake of the NSA leaks that makes sense. And genetic privacy has always been a “hot button” issue for obvious reasons, as personal genomics transforms from a futuristic projection to a ubiquitous part of our lives. It seems to me that there’s a spectrum of reasonable objection here. I don’t think it’s a big deal if you are exposed for your “true ethnicity.” Yes, if we lived in Nazi Germany this might matter, but we don’t, and it doesn’t. There’s the reality that ethnicity is easy to ascertain without consent just by looking at someone. On the other hand if you or someone in your family carries a highly penetrant autosomal disease, then I think the rationale for genetic privacy is much stronger.

But it’s not just genetics. Some people have asserted that Google Glass is a replacement for smartphones. If so, we should be concerned if we’re concerned about privacy more generally. For example a few months ago I was asking a friend of mine the age of her father. She didn’t have any idea with any degree of precision, so I just looked up who she was related to using free online databases with my Android phone. Her father’s age was listed right there. Additionally I was surprised to find that he’d lived in the Pacific Northwest 30 years ago, though my friend seemed uninterested in this biographical data. Rather, she was a touch alarmed that within 30 seconds I retrieved this sort of information, and incidentally noted her sisters’ names, residences and employment histories.

Imagine this sort of functionality, and more so, integrated with something like Google Glass. Yes, I understand that initial privacy concerns will mute the creepier possibilities, but it’s likely a matter of time before someone enables functionality which is initially forbidden. Google won’t have a monopoly on this technology indefinitely. In terms of interpersonal relationships one could easily imagine artificial intelligence which is optimized toward tracking the eye movements of others and constantly outputting a stream of analytics toward the end user. As a concrete example consider a woman who is aware that her significant other has a history of straying. In social situations she could simply turn on a “head tracker” which would generate a frequency distribution over time of who he was looking at over the course of an hour at a party. Of course this sort of thing occurs intuitively and ad hoc already, but with the raw data recorded one might be able to generate much more powerful, persuasive, and incriminating inferences. This might elicit an adaptive response on the part of her boyfriend, but that might be the aim in the first place!

Starting ~10,000 years ago mankind took the step which introduced us to the world of privacy. Rather than small to medium sized bands and villages governed by something like Dunbar’s number we had the option of anonymity. In the 20th century urban life has allowed for a possibility of relative withdrawal from social contacts and connections, if one so chooses. Such a choice was not available to our ancestors, who were inextricably dependent upon their social network to buffer them from the vicissitudes of fate. The scenario which I’m outlining above, which I think is highly likely, does not correspond in the details to the ancient villages. Rather, the modern global village expands the scope of those in your potential social network up to whole world.

The reality is of course that you won’t know billions and billions. But in crowded urban societies you’ll have access to personal details and information on nearly everyone you interact with, which may run into tens of thousands per year, which is greater by orders of magnitude from the low hundred posited for our ancestors. We shall adapt, I have no doubt about that, but how is the question. I envisage that some will become “privacy Amish,” creating retro communities bound together by the possibility of anonymity. For the majority there will emerge new rules and norms as to what is gauche and what is polite. Interesting times.

  • Dmitry Pruss

    The privacy-Amish world is the reality in clinical testing. Sometimes the lab identifies the same genetic variant in numerous distant relatives, and segregation shows that it may be a highly predictive genetic marker. But HIPAA prevents the clinicians from disclosing patients’ data to pretty much anybody. And so even today, these distant relatives remain unaware of each other’s existence, and about the genetic risk factor they share.

  • Erick Loomis

    Cell phone speed dial means I already don’t know any of my friends’ (or some family members’) phone numbers. Will we stop remembering things at all as technology increases the ready access to information? I imagine facial recognition pulling up a stat sheet on every person you encounter (name, age, relation, etc). At first, it’s great for people that struggle remembering names, but then ready access will just make us even worse at remembering the most basic details…

    • razibkhan

      yes. but some of the same argument was made against literacy (the destruction of memory) in antiquity. though the real hammer-blow was the printing press, which eviscerated the ‘art of memory’ in terms of utility.

      • Erick Loomis

        Good point, but printed books are still a long way from constant direct feedback… Could there not be a point at which the rate of input exceeds our ability to adapt?


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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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