Intrusive Technology


I was the BlackBerry Product Manager at Vodafone UK, when the new phone / email unit started to go mainstream. That was back in 2005. It was the first time I had heard complaints about ‘Intrusive Technology.’

BlackBerry offered a tradeoff between ‘work time’ and ‘social time’, and many people chose to engage with the technology rather than their family. That blinking red light indicating an email had arrived, caused a lot of arguments. It was a precursor to the increasing prevalence of internet connected technology, which has infiltrated our lives ever since.

Why intrusive technology is a problem

Gathering information is not, in itself, a bad thing. Libraries do it all the time. What’s happened in the last 15 years, however, since BlackBerry took off could be a concern.

The volume of data that is now collected about us is now so large, that clever algorithms can analyze it, and predict what individuals will do next. Using the same information, the people developing those algorithms can try and step in, to influence our behavior in a direction which might be of use to them. As you might realize, that’s exactly what happened when Cambridge Analytica got hold of our Facebook information. They used it to determine how we were likely to vote and, if they didn’t like the answer, to attempt to change that vote.

The process of analyzing this sort of ‘big data’ information is known as ‘propensity modeling’ (amongst other things) and, with sufficiently large data sets, it can generate a score, which indicates how likely you are to do something. For example, if Facebook knows you clicked on a BMW advertisement and liked CNN’s Facebook page, they might conclude that you are more than 50% likely to vote republican. This is a simple example, it can take more than 100 pieces of information on an individual to determine an even semi reliable profile.

The average household already has more than a dozen internet connected gadgets in it. By 2030, the number of connected items on the internet going to rise to 125 billion. That’s around 16 per person – for every man, woman and child on the planet. Each will gather information about us.

Government intrusion through technology

Edward Snowden’s, the CIA contractor who chose to leak information from his work, opened the doors to how our governments are watching us. His revelations taught us that the authorities had direct server access to Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Apple information. He also revealed that, sometimes with, sometimes without a warrant, those authorities could access and research individuals using that information.

In the West, governments responded by pointing out that they require a facility to monitor our behavior, in order to detect and deter terrorism and that the information was only used when probable cause for investigation had been established. No-one would have been completely surprised by the news. After all, the tax office in most countries has always had the ability to audit us (in some countries they can do that without a search warrant.)

There is obvious veracity to the claim that the government needs to be careful about terrorism, and to ensure people pay the appropriate amount of tax. However, concerningly technologies issued to our government are also sold to national administrations which have murkier goals. Their behavior indicates how these tools could be used ‘against’ us, if an agency, even a rogue government agency chose to.

How and how could governments gather and use this information?

One example is Gamma International, a company based in Hampshire UK, which provided the Egyptian government a facility to install what was effectively spyware which monitored private interactions over internet based technology such as Skype. This is not the only example.

  • Internet company record keeping – by law: By law, in the UK, companies must keep detailed records of your internet interactions with them for at least a year, in case the government wants to analyze them. The same applies to any records your cell phone makes. Inserting a SIM with a phone plan reveals a great deal of information (location, speed, friends, etc) to your phone company, which the government can access subsequently.
  • Chinese government ranking: The Chinese government have also started a trial scheme under which they assign points to citizens, based on how good a citizen they have been. Get a poor score and you may receive a punishment. And those punishments are real. They could prevent you going to university or getting a mortgage.
  • The (terrifying world) of prediction: We’re not there yet, but perhaps the most potentially dystopian outcome of these mass surveillance techniques is that governments could use the information they have, not to look historically (determining determine who committed a terrorist act,) but forward, to predict someone who was likely to commit a terrorist attack. Imagine you run the CIA and an analyst comes to you with the following conundrum. A reliable computer model has analyzed the data available on a group of 3 individuals believed to be a terrorist cell. Other investigation shows that if they do use the facilities they have, to carry out an attack, they will kill no less than 100 people and perhaps as many as 200. They are 90% sure of the model. Would you kill the group of people? The math clearly says you should. (Taking a utilitarian view of the world.)

Summing up the situation when it comes to invasive technology

The name ‘intrusive technology’ itself is, unfortunately, slightly misleading. When we hear ‘intrusion’ we hear ‘intruder!’ which, to most, conjures up an image of an individual dressed in black, walking through your doorway at night, brandishing a weapon and intending at least theft and perhaps harm. That’s an alarming image. Technology, however, has taken a place similar to that sort of home invader, but instead of gaining access through threat, we have welcomed the gadgets which now surveille us in to our homes.

These are concerning ideas unfolding around us. Consider how intrusive the technology you install in your home might be and whether you want to accept it.