x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Is personal privacy in the digital world now an outmoded concept?

Battle lines are being drawn as the global fight to establish ownership of the vast ocean of personal information now available on the internet simmers.

Unrestricted use of new technology such as facial recognition could prove damaging for many individuals. Dave Thompson / PA Archive
Unrestricted use of new technology such as facial recognition could prove damaging for many individuals. Dave Thompson / PA Archive

Tracking technology unveiled by United States defence contractor Raytheon has sounded the opening bell for the first round of a global fight to establish ownership of the vast ocean of personal information now available on the internet.

In one corner are the US security forces and companies such as Google and Facebook that are anxious to obtain maximum advantage from mining the Web for all the information they can.

In the other corner are digital privacy rights groups and the European Commission, which fear the widespread adoption of smartphones and the rising use of social networking websites will combine with the latest algorithmic number-crunching software to create an Orwellian society where personal privacy is a thing of the past.

Raytheon's Rapid Information Overlay Technology can be used to track individuals across websites such as the social networking giant Facebook, the online chat service Twitter and through location-based social networking sites like Foursquare.

"What's new is the ability to put all this information together with an overlay from your activity on social networks. And consumers worldwide have shown that they have little hesitancy to open up their private lives on social networks," says Tony Baer, principal analyst at research firm Ovum.

"We now have the platform technology that can ingest and aggregate this data, and the powerful programmatic frameworks to analyse it. This is all very Big Brotherish. Get used to it."

In some regions, however, moves are now being made to limit the degree to which third parties can trawl online digital data to track our movements and habits.

The European Commission has proposed legislation that would give people a degree of control over personalised digital profiling or surveillance while creating a global standard for privacy protection.

But developments in already sophisticated tracking technologies are outstripping the efforts of bodies such as the European Commission to safeguard personal privacy. The latest tracking software uses chips powerful enough to process data-crunching algorithmic mathematical calculations not only to track but also predict individuals' movements.

Rob Enderle, a principal analysts at research firm the Enderle Group, says that as video cameras, facial recognition, image tracking and data analytics tools improve, "folks with access to these tools will not only know with a high degree of accuracy where we've been but where we are going".

In common with many of those close to the technology sector, Mr Enderle is concerned that the unrestricted use of sophisticated new tracking technologies could be damaging for many individuals.

"Let's say you like an In-N-Out burger place that is near your work but also near an elementary school. The tracking software mistakenly shows you going to an elementary school around lunch time several times a week and concludes that you may be a paedophile attaching that as a flag to your record," says Mr Enderle.

He believes that there is still plenty of room for cases of mistaken identity even given the relative sophistication of today's tracking software.

"Most of this stuff is in its infancy still and each component has a relatively low level of accuracy which, when combined with other components with low accuracy, could be reporting you doing a lot of things you never did because someone looked like you," says Mr Enderle.

In regions where conflict is occurring such as some countries in the Middle East, the consequences of this kind of mistaken digital identity could be more serious.

According to Forbes magazine, software such as that developed by Raytheon that profiles an individual's movements also assists government agencies to target suspected terrorists with drone-launched Hellfire missiles. And Raytheon has confirmed it is primarily in the business of supplying counter-terrorism agencies with the most up-to-date tracking technology possible.

"Raytheon, as a leader in cybersecurity, offers advanced capabilities to government customers. We're focused on providing them the best available solutions that meet their constantly evolving requirements," said the company spokesman Dave Desilets.

Officials such as European Union member of Parliament Jan Philipp Albrecht are also wary of the ways in which tracking technology can be used commercially. The US data collection industry, dominated by online giants such as Google and Yahoo, has already reached a stage where online marketeers can create a "360 degree" profile of an individual by trawling the internet for any data relating to their actions, behaviour, locations and relationships.

The increasing worldwide adoption of smartphones carrying global positioning system (GPS) tracking chips and the growth of geolocation services such as FourSquare also mean that it will become increasingly easy to track consumers' movements and behaviour.

Reports of new trackable devices such as a digital watch being developed by Apple to perform many of the functions of an iPad or iPhone indicate that today's tracking technology may still be in its infancy.

As data collection grows into a multibillion-dollar global industry and tracking technology becomes increasingly crucial to US defence strategy, humanity may soon be forced to reevaluate its definition of personal privacy.