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The ugly, the bad, and the good: 2014 in review

Ugly: the year in privacy.

From the Target data breach to the Sony hack, from the continuing Snowden revelations to the UK's power grab, from Facebook's manipulation of its users' newsfeeds to the Samaritans' ham-fisted attempt at leveraging social media, and finally from the UK government's early, disastrous stab at reusing medical data to Heartbleed and the holes in the Internet's basic infrastructure it's been a rough, rough year.

Back in January at the Computers, Freedom, and Data Protection conference, Mireille Hildebrandt asked whether people would rather have privacy or the right to privacy. Without trustworthy technical tools and infrastructure we can't have the former and the latter is theoretical fantasy. Each of those cases highlights a different problem: vulnerabilities introduced down the chain of suppliers (Target); the deep dependence we all have on third parties to protect the information we have no choice but to give them (Sony, eBay, government health services).

Bad: mobile phone obliviousness is reaching absurd proportions.

A couple of weeks ago a friend and I watched with some bemusement as a young woman walked up the busiest section of Pancras Road, where it runs alongside London's Kings Cross railway station. While traffic flowed around and behind her, she walked slower and slower as a taxi came up behind her, slowed, and inched forward, the driver doubtless fuming in legitimate frustration. She was, of course, engrossed in whatever was happening on the screen of her mobile phone, which was more real to her than the large, life-threatening chunks of metal around her. Similarly, it's now routine to see swathes of passengers blocked on the stairs exiting underground stations by people who can't wait two more steps to check their email.

Worse, this behavior is spreading to cyclists: on a busy Cambridge street in July the cyclist in front of me couldn't hear my shouted question because she was listening to music over headphones. In many jurisdictions, blocking off your hearing is illegal for car drivers. For cyclists it's suicidal, and you see it even in London.

The mindset in which our personal bubbles are preferable to the physical world around us is a real and serious threat to our social fabric, and it's one that's likely to spread through the vector of "smart city" and "smart home" technologies. How cool is it to have a smartphone app that will remotely control your home's heating system so you can come home from a two-week vacation to a warm house? It makes sense if your nearest neighbor is five miles away, as in parts of the American West. But when your next-door neighbor is only a few feet away...trading those sorts of favors is how a local cohesive community is built. Costs like these are rarely factored in when we think about new technologies. I remember hearing on a radio program once that air conditioning killed much of the social fabric of the American South: people gave up sitting on their breezy porches and chatting with neighbors passing by in favor of shutting the windows and staying indoors. Similarly, remote garage door openers (drive up, open door, drive in, close door, enter house through garage) mean many American suburban neighbors never talk to each other. Granted, many urban dwellers don't either...but then carry this lack of cooperation over into areas where shared resources are an issue - such as the increasingly tight spaces on airplanes and we're going to be in real trouble..

Good: there is still hope.

Despite all the above, the increasingly acrimonious disputes over network neutrality, and the inroads into physical-world privacy being set up by developments such as Google's purchase of NEST. there are still those who are pushing back against government and corporate capture of the Internet. Danny O'Brien, now at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, highlighted some of the hard-working civil society folk last year; others have spoken at Eva Pascoe's Cybersalon series. Still others are trying to rebuild the Internet infrastructure so we can rely on it more safely. Finally, efforts to return control over personal data to its owner such as personal data stores offer the possibility of a much safer and more resilient way of doing things. (Obdisclosure: I do some work for Mydex.)

None of these efforts will be enough by themselves. As all these "smart" technologies spread outwards into the rest of our lives via ubiquitous sensors feeding the cloud, the risks inherent in more of the same will continue to rise. As Cory Doctorow argues in Wired this week, the restrictions on technology that are today merely inconvenient will, in a few years, place fundamental limitations on our physical autonomy. The principle that anything in your machine that you can't control can hurt you will be infinitely more meaningful when the machine in question is a chip that allows your limbs, your vision, or your brain to function.

So, for 2015: I wish you computers, freedom, and privacy - and the will to fight for all three.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


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