Horizon: Zero Dawn is a problem because I don’t know which game I have to slide out of my top 5 in order to fit it into that list. (It might be have to replace “Child of Light,” which pains me, but replacing any would pain me… maybe “Outlaws” will move to #6 …) It’s an incredible game in its own right, with beautiful artwork, well-written characters, and genuinely fun gameplay. I find its story especially fascinating—and particularly relevant as we grapple with a framework for governing and living in an age of digital information and interconnected devices. Though its central technological focus is on Artificial Intelligence and the future of humanity, it touches a multitude of topics- including data privacy.
Although Judge Richard Posner famously decried privacy as a way for bad people get away with bad things, privacy is important for personal development and free association. Privacy is essential to our culture, and it is only valuable inasmuch as it is protected and reliable. Our expectations of privacy follow us into our digital extensions. However, one of the best methods of securing privacy is impractical in the face of consumer demands for interconnection and convenience.
I. Can We Have Privacy by Design When We Demand Designs that Compromise our Privacy?
The Federal Trade Commission’s favored method for protecting Privacy is “Privacy By Design.” In simple terms, this often means designing a product to rely as little on privacy as possible. After all, if no data is collected, there is no data to steal. However, there are serious questions about the feasibility of this approach in the face of consumer expectations for interconnected devices.
Privacy by Design is a much better idea than the sophomoric idea of increasing security measures. Designing a house not to be broken into is better than trying to just put a good lock on the front door. To put it another way: Think of it as building a dam without holes rather than trying to plug all of the holes after you finish building.
I’ve heard tech entrepreneurs talk about “The Internet of Things” at conferences for many years, now. They talk about it like it’s a product currently in development and there’s an upcoming product launch date that we should be excited about- like we can line up for outside of a retail store hours before the doors open so we can be the first to get some new tech device. This is not how our beloved internet was created. Massive networks are created piece by piece- one node at a time, one connection at a time. The Internet of Things isn’t a tech product that will abruptly launch in Q3 of 2019. It’s a web of FitBits, geolocated social media posts, hashtags, metadata, smart houses, Alexas and Siris, searches, click-throughs, check-ins, etc. The “Internet of Things” is really just the result of increasingly tech-savvy consumers living their lives while making use of connected devices.
That’s not to diminish its significance or the challenges it poses. Rather, this highlights that this “Coming Soon” feature is really already here, growing organically. Given that our society is already growing this vast network of data, Privacy by Design seems like an impossible and futile task. The products and functions that consumers demand all require some collection, storage, or use of data: location, history, log-in information- all for a quick, convenient, personalized experience. One solution is for consumers to choose between optimizing convenience and optimizing privacy.
II. A Focus on Connected Devices
Horizon: Zero Dawn is a story deliberately situated at the boundary of the natural world (plants, water, rocks, trees, flesh and blood) and the artificial world (processed metals, digital information, robotics, cybernetics). As a child, Aloy falls into a cavern and finds a piece of ancient (21st century) technology. A small triangle that clips over the ear, this “Focus” is essentially a smart phone with Augmented Reality projection (sort of… JawBone meets GoogleGlass and Microsoft Hololens). This device helps to advance the plot, often by connecting with ancient records that establish the history of Aloy’s world (it even helps with combat and stealth!).
It’s also a privacy nightmare. The primary antagonist first sees Aloy -without her knowledge- through another character’s Focus. Aloy’s own Focus is hacked several times during the game. A key ally even reveals that he hacked Aloy’s Focus when she was a child and watched her life unfold as she grew up. (This ultimately serves the story as a way for the Sage archetype to have a sort of omniscience about the protagonist.) For a girl who grew up as an outcast from her tribe, living a near-solitary life in a cabin on a mountain, with the only electronic device in a hundred miles, she manages to run into a lot of privacy breaches. I can’t imagine if she tried to take an Uber from one village to the next.
Our interconnected devices accumulate deeply astonishing volumes of data- sometimes, very personalized data gets captured. In a case heard by the Supreme Court this month, a man in Ohio has his location determined by his cell phone provider. The police obtained this information and used it as part of his arrest and subsequent prosecution. The Supreme Court recently heard a case about the use of warrants for law enforcement to access cell phone data. (This is different from the famous stalemate between the FBI and Apple after the San Bernadino shooting, when Apple refused an order to unlock the iPhone of a deceased criminal.) As connected devices become omnipresent, questions about data privacy and information security permeate very nearly every side of every facet of our daily lives. We don’t face questions about data the way that one “faces” a wall; we face these questions the way that a fish “faces” water.
From cell phone manufacturers to social media platforms, the government confronts technology and business in a debate about the security mechanisms that should be required (or prohibited) to protect consumers from criminals in myriad contexts and scenarios. In this debate, the right answer to one scenario is often the wrong answer for the next scenario.
Conclusion: Maybe We Don’t Understand Privacy In a New Way, Yet
The current cycle of consumer demand for risky designs followed by data breaches is not sustainable. Something will have to shift for Privacy in the 21st century. Maybe we will rethink some part of the concept privacy. Maybe we will sacrifice some of the convenience of the digital era to retain privacy. Maybe we will try to rely more heavily on security measures after a breakthrough in computing and/or cryptography. Maybe we will find ways to integrate the ancient privacy methods of the 20th century into our future.