2017 will give us unprecedented information about the world around us. But can privacy survive the future?

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.”

60% of primate species threatened with extinction

A new study has called for urgent action to protect the world’s rapidly dwindling primate populations after figures revealed that 60% of the world’s primate species are threatened with extinction. There are over 500 currently recognised primate species, with the percentage considered at risk having increased by 20% since 1996.

The study draws attention to the incredible impact that humans have placed on primate environments. Agriculture, logging, construction, resource extraction and other human activities have all placed escalating and unsustainable pressure on the animals’ habitats, and are predicted to only worsen over the next 50 years.

Unless immediate action is taken, the scientists predict numerous extinctions.

“In 1996 around 40% of the then recognised primate taxa were threatened. The increase to 60% at present is extremely worrying and indicates that more conservation efforts are needed to halt this increase,” says Serge Wich, professor by special appointment of Conservation of the Great Apes at the University of Amsterdam.

Interestingly, one of the main suggestions for helping the primates is first helping humans. Most primates live in regions characterised by high levels of poverty and inequality, a fact that the study authors believe leads to greater hunting and habitat loss.

They suggest that immediate actions should be taken to improve health and access to education, develop sustainable land-use initiatives, and preserve traditional livelihoods that can contribute to food security and environmental conservation.

While it may be tragic to some, it could be easy to see the loss of these primates as unimportant to humans. However, it is important to note that the non-human primates’ biological relation to humans offers unique insights into human evolution, biology, behaviour and the threat of emerging diseases.

Additionally, these species serve as key components of tropical biodiversity and contribute to forest regeneration and ecosystem health. If they are struck by mass extinction, it is hard to predict the impact it could have on their ecosystems.

“‘If we are unable to reduce the impact of our activities on primates, it is difficult to foresee how we will maintain this fantastic diversity of our closest relatives in the near future,” added Wich. “That will not only be a great loss from a scientific point of view, but will also have a negative influence on the ecosystems that we all rely so much upon. It is therefore important to drastically change from the business as usual scenarios to more sustainable ones.”

The threat posed to delicate ecosystems by human expansion is nothing new, but it is perhaps shocking to have such a blunt figure out there as to the damage being caused.

More than half of these species – species that are far closer to us than we may be comfortable discussing – could die unless current policy is reversed.

The study’s authors have called on authorities across the world to take action and raise awareness of the issues raised.

The article itself is published in the latest edition of the journal Science Advances.

Mark Zuckerberg: VR goal is still 5-10 years away

Mark Zuzkerberg has said that the true goal of virtual reality could still be a decade away, in a testimony during a high-profile court case against his company.

Facebook, as owner of Oculus, is currently in the middle of being sued by ZeniMax Media for allegedly stealing technology for the virtual reality device. If proved guilty, they will be pursued for the amount of $2bn by ZeniMax.  However, perhaps more pertinent to the actual future of virtual reality are comments arising from Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony.

As it currently stands, virtual reality is still a far cry from being integrated into everyday life on a wide scale. Oculus, HTC Vive and Playstation VR are still largely targeting gamers and the idea of entertainment experiences. While they have found varying levels of success, all three platforms are being held back by the youth of the technology and, in the case of Vive and Oculus, the limited by the need for a high performing computer to plug into.

Image and featured image courtesy of Oculus

“I don’t think that good virtual reality is fully there yet,” said Zuckerberg. “It’s going to take five or 10 more years of development before we get to where we all want to go.”

The revelation isn’t a particularly shocking one; even the most ardent believer in virtual reality has to admit that we’re a fair way off the goal. Indeed, we can be seen as being in the first wave of mainstream virtual reality, with the main players in the tech using gaming as a way to introduce the technology to a group that are most likely to be interested from the off.

Zuckerberg has far grander plans than simply expanding the user base however, as seen with projects such as Facebook Social VR. If games are the entry, the idea is to expand virtual reality to become a whole new computing platform used for a bevy of experiences and containing a whole load of tools. The ambition is high, the reality slightly lagging behind.

Mark Zuckerberg with Priscilla Chan in 2016

When asked about the realisation of VR as this new computing platform, Zuckerberg replied: “These things end up being more complex than you think up front. If anything, we may have to invest even more money to get to the goals we had than we had thought up front.”

He then went on to add that the probable investment for Facebook to reach that goal is likely to top the $3bn mark over the next ten years. Considering the social media giant spent $2bn just to acquire Oculus, this represents a truly colossal investment in something that seemed to be initially set to hit a lot sooner. Admittedly the goal is rather grand: providing hundreds of millions of people with a good virtual reality experience transcending gaming alone.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, it’s very important that you know that Mark Zuckerberg did in fact wear a suit to trial. Whether Palmer Luckey, making his first public appearance since his Gamergate/Trump support scandal last year, will manage to ditch the flip flops when he testifies is yet to be seen.