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Welcome to the out-of-control decade

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Paranoia strikes (digitally) deep

Today, the internet is essentially a computing and communications space. During the next decade, a vast array of embedded-internet devices will hop aboard what was once jocularly referred to as the infobahn.

Be they supermarket barcode scanners, electronic toll collectors, ID-card readers, home refrigerators, smart electrical meters, healthcare devices, or whatever, being internet-connected these devices will all potentially be able to talk amongst themselves in the next decade's omniscient cloud, sharing data while cross-checking usage patterns.

All that data taken together will paint a highly detailed picture of you, your whereabouts, diet, health status, purchasing patterns, and lifestyle. And in some hands - say, those at the end of the long arm of the law or those clenched into an iron fist - that information could be used against you.

Don't get us wrong. You might feel perfectly comfortable with your life being an open book, agreeing instead with Google CEO Eric Schmidt's peculiar notions of privacy. As he recently told CNBC. "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place."

The operant word in Schmidt's smug statement is "anyone." He assumes a benevolent, paternalist "anyone" who's just like you and me, and keeps us good folks safe by watching out for terrorists, pedophiles, and other odious "thems". In Schmidt's world, there's a "them" and an "us".

If only life were that simple. It isn't.

The definition of "them" is a highly mutable one. Here in the United States, citizens out of step with the dominant political philosophy have been regularly designated as "them," and subjected to both extra-legal and legal-but-selective scrutiny - think of the McCarthy years, the late 1960s, and the post-9/11 hysteria, for example.

A patchwork of legal protections currently exists to protect against the unfettered tracking of such digital droppings as your location, buying practices, financial dealings, and health records. Although that protective shield is in clear need of consolidation and strengthening, it exists. Today, at least.

But data is an increasingly valuable commodity. And wherever there's value to be found, there's money to be made - and that money will fund an army of lobbyists to fiscally twist pliant lawmaking arms to weaken those protections.

The phrase "increasing shareholder value" is a talisman of almost religious power these days, matched only in its magical inarguability by its working-class mirror mantra of "job creation". Expect both of those incantations to crop up in data-deregulation debates during the out-of-control 2010s, no matter which political party is in power.

Information about you is worth money. Big money. But to take an even darker view, it might be worth your life.

Come a significant breach in public security - a "9/11 redux", if you will - and data safeguards will evaporate. Poof. Faced with an existential threat - whether real, imagined, or trumped up - the Schmidt philosophy will rule, and personal privacy and protection will dissolve.

This is not news. Just ask the 100,000 or so Japanese Americans from California, Oregon, and Washington who received all-expense-paid vacations in sunny Arizona, Utah, Wyoming and elsewhere during World War II.

The difference during a security crisis in the 2010s will be that there's so much more data that avid dot-connecters might use to implicate possible "thems" - and that the majority of that potentially incriminating data is increasingly out of your control.

Those datapoint dots can be reassembled into narratives that suit the goals of the reassembler. As has been proven in many a grad-school psych project and as sung by Paul Simon in the key of B major, "A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest."

And there will be many, many dots for those narrative builders to choose from. Today, as we ease our way into the out-of-control decade, tracking your habits and whereabouts is mostly either helpful or benign. In the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, a FasTrak electronic toll-collection devices helped one motorist recover her stolen car by reporting that car's comings and goings.

In Blighty, although an enormous network of CCTV cameras make UK citizenry the most watched-over in the world (there are over one million cameras in London alone), when it comes to crime-fighting the system is a joke. One report, for example, determined that one crime was solved per 1,000 CCTV cameras in London.

But electronic fare collection and CCTV are mere baby steps. During the next decade, information collection will expand by leaps and bounds. Advances in location-awareness, for example, may add passenger information to vehicle tracking, then extend that tracking beyond mere checkpoint monitoring to continuous surveillance. CCTVs will add more-infallible-than-not face detection and will thus be able to track individuals' movements from camera to camera to camera.

If you're a dot-connecting prosecutor with a narrative to build, you're going to have plenty of info with which to construct your argument. And if you're Mr. or Ms. Average Consumer, you'll have little or no control over your own dots.

And it's Mr. and Ms. Average Consumer - or, more correctly put, billions of Mr. and Ms. Average Consumers - who will find themselves increasingly out of control in the coming decade.

You, dear reader, as a technically sophisticated consumer of technology, can choose to avoid such relatively benign losses of control as Apple lock-in. You can also work your way around Google's multi-tentacled grip on your personal information and web activities. With sufficient effort, you can also keep most of your personal digital dots out of the cloud, where they could otherwise be pounced upon by those who might want to rewrite your narrative to their own ends.

But Mr. and Ms. Average Consumer can't. You might be able to retain a modicum of control during the coming decade, but most folks won't be able to.

They'll be out of control. ®

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