In a world of increased connectivity, where our presence and behaviour is increasingly being tracked by the technology we use, is there a place for privacy? We hear from Scobleizer’s Robert Scoble, author, blogger and VR and mixed reality evangelist, and Salil Shetty, secretary-general of Amnesty International, about whether there’s space to hide as the technologies of 2017 provide us with ever-more data about the world around us

From 2017, according to technology evangelist Robert Scoble, we are going to see technologies that give us unprecedented information about the world around us, including the people in it.

“The next iPhone is going to be a clear iPhone with a 3D sensor that is so sensitive that it can see your heart beating from about 3ft away,” said Scoble, CEO of Scobleizer, at a debate at Web Summit, during which he spent the entire time wearing a Microsoft Hololens. “It’s so sensitive it can see how hard you’re touching on a desk and it can see the fibres on a jacket from 3ft away so it can check its authenticity from that distance.

“It’s the same technology that is going to be running our self-driving cars, or a very similar technology, and is already being used at Qualcomm in drones to see the world. We are heading into a mixed reality world; one where things like this Microsoft Hololens are going to be very commonplace.”

In a world where the digital seems to be stripping away our privacy at every turn, however, this may not be the best news.

“The world we’re about to enter is going to bring us huge new increases in functionality and features, and they do come with a scary price: I will know a lot about you. Soon,” said Scoble with glee.

Value of technology’s utility

In reality, any technologies that do infringe further on our privacy will likely be accepted, Scoble argues, because they will provide us with knowledge and abilities that will enrich our lives.

“The utility of all these technologies that are coming are going to be extraordinary,” he said. “They’re going to save my kid’s life from killing himself in a car; they’re going to make it easy for me to walk into a shopping mall and find the blue jeans; it’s going to let me play new kinds of video games with my kids in virtual reality, augmented reality.”

Image courtesy of Web Summit

He gave the example of a scenario familiar to many convention regulars: where you are in the presence of a person you know is important, but you can’t work out who they are. This situation was experienced by Scoble himself when he was talking to Peter Piot at the World Economic Forum earlier this year.

“He had a badge on so I knew his name – I knew he worked for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – but I couldn’t get on my phone because I couldn’t get Wi-Fi, and I couldn’t figure out who he was,” he said.

In this instance, it was obvious to Scoble that Piot was extremely important, but not why.

“I did know he was highly technical because of how he was talking to people, and I knew he was a god among people because everybody was genuflecting, so I knew he was important in some way but I couldn’t figure out how.”

In the future, Scoble said, this problem would be resolved, because mixed reality glasses would provide the wearer with pertinent information pulled from the web about those around them.

“Soon I’m going to have glasses with LinkedIn right here that’s going to tell me who he is,” he said, pointing to his eyes. “The first line on LinkedIn is going to say he discovered the Ebola virus. I wish I had known that when I was talking to him!”

Protecting privacy

As exciting as this technology is, in this increasingly connected reality we do, however, need to maintain a certain level of personal privacy. Salil Shetty, secretary-general of Amnesty International, was keen to remind the assembled crowd of developers, investors and tech enthusiasts of the importance of something we often blindly take for granted.

“Privacy in a sense is being used as shorthand for human rights now because privacy is a key enabler for freedom of expression, freedom of speech and many other key human rights,” he said.

Privacy is a key enabler for freedom of expression, freedom of speech

“Every day of the week that governments are using the same power of digital technology to crack down on dissent, on freedom of expression, on our position and it’s very different if you’re having this conversation in mature democracies, say like the United States, but Amnesty’s work, a lot of it, is in places like Ethiopia, Egypt, Vietnam, China.

“If you’re raising your voice against the government in any of these places and you do not have the privilege of privacy, you’re dead meat.”

He gave the example of the Malaysian cartoonist Zunar who, according to Shetty “had 11 sedition charges against him, one each tweet”.

“Journalists in Mexico are being hounded because of what they do,” he added. “If you want to meet journalists in Turkey right now where would you go? You go to jail, that’s where they are. And a lot of this is happening because of exposure online. Women, minorities, LGBT activists, all being hounded.”

Technology: the cause and solution

However, although technology can expose people to human rights abuses, and any technology that is developed has the potential to increase this, Shetty believes technology can also provide the answer to this problem.

“It’s not a question in my view as to whether it’s privacy or human rights, technology or human rights. I think the question is can we make it technology for human rights? How do we make it work for human rights?” he queried the 15,000-strong crowd of attendees.

Amnesty International secretary-general Salil Shetty. Image and featured image courtesy of Amnesty International

“I personally believe that in some ways digital technology’s expansion has done more for making people aware of what their human rights are and bringing to them the capability of claiming their human rights, and holding governments and companies accountable for their human rights violations.”

But using technology to protect privacy does also mean needing one rule for everyone, no matter who they are, according to the Amnesty secretary-general.

“We’ve had many battles with Apple. We’re having one right now about the potential use of child labour in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the production of lithium batteries, which are in every single device,” he said. “But on [encryption] they are right. There is no backdoor only for good guys.

“You have a backdoor, you have a backdoor everyone is going to enter from there. And so on the FBI case I think Apple has absolutely taken the right stand and we were very much with them on this.”

Old rules, new reality

While government surveillance can be fought against by maintaining strict encryption, the everyday creep that new mixed-reality devices are set to provide is harder to counter.

For Scoble, the answer lies is the existing laws we have, which can be reapplied to the new abilities technology has given us.

Privacy is a key enabler for freedom of expression, freedom of speech

“In journalism school we learned about the difference between public and private, and a lot of these rules still will apply in this 3D world,” he said. “We’re heading to a world where the old rules still have some value to talk about, right? In a public street I have the permission to take a picture of you, which actually helps with human rights because if you’re getting shot by the cops you might want that picture of you to be displayed to the world.”

In spaces such as your own home, there is an expectation of privacy, meaning tighter rules already apply.

“The rules change from the publicness of the public street to: where are you in your own private world, did you have expectations of privacy? Did you close the drapes so nobody could take a picture of you inside?” said Scoble. “The more things you do like that, in a court of law you will have more of an expectation of privacy to show the judge that hey, somebody was breaking the rules when they took a drone into my window.”

“The principles are the same,” agreed Shetty. “So when it comes to individuals we would go for maximum privacy, but when it comes to things which are of public interest we go for maximum transparency.”

However, there are times when new technologies will be required to assist with the protection of this privacy.

“This 3D sensor on your glasses is also going to be able to capture you in a locker room, or somewhere inappropriate, and we have to have technology that turns the glasses off because a lot of us are going to forget we have them on,” said Scoble.

“Particularly when we get to contact lenses in 10 or 15 years, we’re going to forget we have them on and we’re not going to take them off just to go into a restroom, right?

“But they’re going to be capturing stuff about what’s going on in those places, so we need new kinds of technology to block it, because I’m not going to be one of the guys who are going to say we have the right to capture something in the bathroom in 3D when you walk in. No.”

Scientists make it possible to 3D print your own sonic tractor beam

You can now, with some assembly, 3D print your very own tiny sonic tractor beam.

Thanks to the efforts of a research team at Bristol University, technology for a single-sided acoustic tractor beam has now been adapted to be printed and assembled by anyone with the inclination. The publically available specifications are based on the first single-sided acoustic tractor beam, developed last year.

The original technology was developed by Asier Marzo, then a doctoral student at the Public University of Navarre. The tractor beam, rather than using the long-possible sonic levitation to push objects around, functioned true to its name and was able to trap and pull objects using sound waves from only one direction.

Marzo, now a research assistant at the University of Bristol, led his team in changing the technology into something that anyone could produce. Their efforts, beyond adaptation, have resulted in the production of a fully detailed how-to video for the public and an open access paper in Applied Physics Letters that will lay out the results of their development work.

“Previously we developed a tractor beam, but it was very complicated and pricey because it required a phase array, which is a complex electronic system,” Marzo said. “In this paper, we made a simple, static tractor beam that only requires a static piece of matter.”

The principle change from the original technology to the new, more accessible version was the transition from an underlying complex structure that made use of expensive electronics to an architecture that produces the same results structurally rather than electronically. As the sound passes through these elements, the waves are shaped by the internal structure of the 3D printed material.

The sound wave is modulated using a metamaterial which consists of lots of tubes of varying lengths. After passing through said tubes, the sound has the correct phases to create the tractor beam. However, the team face difficulty in optimising this material design to allow common 3D printers to produce the same results as more precise instruments.

Beyond the simple appeal of owning your own tractor beam, the technology may have serious potential for studying low-gravity effects on biological samples. Microgravity research is already an emerging field of interest and the tractor beam may serve as an effective tool for furthering these studies.

“Recently there have been several papers about what happens if we levitate an embryo, how does it develop? Or what happens if we levitate bacteria?” Marzo said. “For instance, they discovered salmonella is three times more [virulent] when it’s levitated. Certain microorganisms react differently to microgravity.”

There are currently three designs of the tractor beam, each with a trapping profile suited to different object sizes as related to the wavelength of sound used. However, the team’s technology is still limited to objects around half the size of the wavelength. For practical frequencies, just above what humans can hear, this limits the current size of trappable objects to a few millimetres.