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Technology is Eroding the Ability To Move Around the Physical World Anonymously

Hal Hodson, a correspondent for Economist writes in a Twitter thread: Something really massive is happening, and I feel like society is barely grasping the tendrils of the implications. Technology is eroding one of the great levees of human society — the ability to move around the physical world anonymously. This is happening because computers are getting better at spotting patterns in data, and the cost of capturing data that contain patterns about human beings is plummeting. Most adult humans have a device in their pocket capable of recognizing the patterns in another human’s face. Face recognition is just the most obvious side of this new reality. It’s easy to grasp that a computer can remember what your face looks like, because humans can do that too (not that well though). But computers don’t care what data is used to tag you, only that the data is unique.

You can measure someone’s: heartbeat with a laser; breathing with the RF-waves in wifi; walking gait with a camera; geographical movements through their phone; and voice and emotional state through a microphone. These datasets all hold patterns which uniquely ID a person. Pretty much anyone can “scan” anyone at this point. The hard bit is matching the patterns in that data with a person’s legal identity, figuring out to whom a pattern belongs. This means that control of and access to identity systems is more important than it has ever been before.

The issue is that currently the world does not expect to be identified anywhere at any time, by anyone. Society runs on the assumption that people are unknowable in some spaces. I don’t know what happens as that disappears, but I am worried. It’s easy to imagine bad actors gathering all the data they can on everyone they can get their hands on. Doesn’t matter if it isn’t linked with an ID right now. Store it, and when someone becomes a threat, do the work to ID them in stored data, find something to get them with. Legal systems need to recreate and/or reinforce some of the levees that cheap compute and sensing are washing away. Maybe folks want to live in a world where anyone can set a drone or autonomous agent to track a person around town and report their movements. I don’t think so. Addedum: the direction of travel is crystal clear here. Cheaper sensors, closer to the body and mind, coupled with ever-cheaperbetter computation. You can’t rely on nature for “privacy” any more. You have to do it for ourselves, if you want.


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