About 10 years ago, a very good friend lent me a book by authors Kieron O’Hara and Nigel Shadbolt, both based in the United Kingdom. Titled The Spy in the Coffee Machine, I found the book to be a very interesting read. In fact, it came to memory just recently as I noted the news report on a proposed law to make mobile numbers “portable,” or that a person can maintain his cellular number for life.
I guess it goes without saying, that as a matter of course, for mobile portability to work, any and all mobile numbers in use must first be registered, whether post-paid or prepaid. Otherwise, portability will not work. And with registration comes a government or private database, whether electronic or otherwise, that captures a person’s personal information and other data. And there is no harm in that, right?
Reading this, the old book came to mind. The book, published by OneWorld in 2008, discussed the emergence of “hyper-surveillance,” as the authors noted that as more and more people increasingly used technology for work and leisure, all their electronic activity would actually “leave behind digital footprints that can be used to track our movements.” Of course, there is nothing wrong with digital footprints being tracked, right?
The “spy,” as they called it, was now in all our cars, telephones or mobile phones, and even coffee machines, through what they referred to as “tiny computers communicating wirelessly via the Internet [that] can serve as miniature witnesses, forming powerful networks whose emergent behavior can be very complex, intelligent, and invasive.”
The book posed the question: “How much of an infringement on privacy are they? Exposing the invasion of our privacy from CCTVs to blogs, The Spy in the Coffee Machine explores what — if anything — we can do to prevent it from disappearing forever in the digital age, and provides readers with a much-needed wake-up call to the benefits and dangers of this new technology.”
I consider the book, while dated, required reading for those interested in knowing more about surveillance. It used to be that the ability of an inanimate object, like a coffee machine, was limited to “following commands.” But, with the era of customization, we have actually allowed these inanimate things, through technology and artificial intelligence, to understand, learn, and even memorize or recall our peculiarities, desires, wants, preferences, attitudes, and behavior.
To discuss this further, consider that newer coffee machine can be set, after several use, to learn our preferences, and to automatically regulate the amount of coffee grounds and water, the temperature of the water, as well as time of brewing that we prefer. All that information, which relates to you personally, is stored in some chip within the machine, which allows the machine to call out information when necessary.
In this sense, that little “spy” in your machine — through mathematical algorithms — can already estimate or approximate what time you wake up and how long you sit for breakfast, and maybe even the time you depart your home for work. That is by using standards and averages, among other information. And if you are the type to have coffee at home daily, it also can detect the days when you are not at home.
Imagine if that particular information can be “accessed” from your machine by someone else, and the data available from the machine can establish a pattern of behavior. In the old days, intelligence operatives would have to regularly go through a subject’s garbage over a long period of time to gather “raw” intelligence, and the same data will have to go through intelligence “analysts” just to establish the subject’s patterns of behavior. In this case, perhaps accessing your coffee machine may be enough?
Back in the day, one needed to physically go to the bank to open an account. In turn, one is issued a passbook, and only through that passbook can people transact with the bank. In this sense, your data cannot be hacked, and your money cannot be moved or “stolen” electronically. And, physical money was in the bank vault. Nowadays, however, a bank doesn’t even need a physical branch to operate.
In pushing his Mobile Number Portability bill, which will allow one to keep his or her mobile number even if she or she switches to another network provider or changes subscription from postpaid to prepaid, Senator Sherwin Gatchalian noted, “With this law, there is freedom of movement.”
Frankly, I don’t see it that way, especially if mobile “portability” will result in mandatory mobile registration. That registration database — matching names with pictures and mobile numbers as well as other personal information — will just be another “digital footprint” that can be hacked, and the information possibly misused. In fact, given the widespread mobile use, mobile SIM registration may be an easy way to expediting the implementation and use of national ID system.
Couple this with the ability to track phones and their owners through GPS and cell sites, and match this with face-recognition software employed through public and private CCTV networks, then “Big Brother” is now more a reality than fiction. George Orwell must be laughing in his grave. He wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1949. That was almost 70 years ago. But his concerns about a totalitarian leader who watched and controlled people constantly is now a reality.
Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippines Press Council.