The darker side of technology

By Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic, March 2014

Gone: our freedom to live anonomously.

A few mornings ago I was rushing myself out the door while trying to decide if I needed a warmer jacket. “How cold is it outside?” I called out to my guy while rifling through the hall closet. He, being a hobby meteorologist, relishes any weather-related question. Out of the blue he’ll share that the roads are icy in New Brunswick or record heat is shrivelling Cairo or the temperature in downtown Victoria is three degrees warmer than at the airport. 

On this day, however, no immediate answer was forthcoming. The computer had not yet been turned on, the iPad was down on its charge and the clock/weather widget on the buffet (yeah, I know, nice decorator touch) had flat-lined on its outdoor information. Seems the sensor on the patio had lost its sense. The only remaining option was to glance out the kitchen window at the old-fashioned thermometer and take note of the mercury sitting at five degrees.

We’ve had similar meltdowns with (and over) the GPS, a mulish navigational device that has probably done for map sales what the internet did for the encyclopedia set. Our most dramatic malfunction involved a rainy, night-time trip to an airport in unfamiliar territory that resulted in a counter-intuitive drive right into town and then the computerized pronouncement in the middle of a mall parking lot: You have reached your destination. I have a particular loathing for the GPS. To use it is to drive with blinders on. It leads you through one small grid of map at a time so you never really have a clue where you are in the larger landscape. Like so much of our technology it feeds us timely bits of knowledge and has no connection to the bigger picture. 

The more we increase our reliance on single-minded devices for even the most mundane of tasks, the more we also risk devolving our brain into the same organ category as the appendix. That has hugely serious implications for society, not just in the aftermath of a system-wide malfunction but also for the day we discover that the information highway has long been a stealthy two-way street. Yes, our devices are not just working for us.   

If that sounds like the realm of Chicken Little and other paranoid types, consider the revelation that Canada's electronic spy agency CSEC recently used the free wireless service at a major Canadian airport to pinpoint thousands of unsuspecting passengers, and then tracked their movement for several days. It seems this developer of “tradecraft” (think surveillance and espionage) partnered with its American counterpart to use the Canadian public in a “game-changing” experiment on new ways to find the bad guys. Traditionally, the search has been for the rogue needle in the haystack. But this experiment showed that doing the opposite is more efficient, that systematically eliminating the haystack—all of us whose electronic devices give away our location—is the quicker way to expose the needle. This finding has potentially devastating implications for anyone who happens to be tracked near the wrong place at the wrong time. It also showcased how cheaply and effortlessly we can all be monitored. 

Meanwhile on the home front, every time we buy another “smart” appliance our walls become more transparent. We think it’s just the fridge that knows all about our buying, eating and wasting habits, and we don’t want to hear about real people at real corporations who are collecting and compiling this data for profit. It’s when that information boomerangs in the form of customized marketing from the food industry or stern admonishment from the health-care industry that we’ll realize the fridge has been ratting on us.

Avner Levin, director of McGill University’s Privacy and Cyber Crime Institute, cautions that our outdated privacy laws and enforcement powers do not address any of these emerging issues. Always be aware, he says, that as soon as you plug anything into the cyber world, the information begins flowing in both directions. 

It’s easy to see how smart technology can gently roll us over until our soft underbelly is perfectly exposed to all the faceless saints and sinners who have the potential to toggle everything from the bank account to the electronic pacemaker to the freedom to live anonymously. 

So often what starts out being helpful and convenient bares its menacing side once we’ve all bought in. We serve ourselves well by proceeding with caution.

Trudy marvels at anyone who can manoeuvre a grocery cart up and down the aisles while blasting away on a cell phone about nothing.  Occasionally she wishes she could multitask like that.