Always-On Tech Will Chill Democracy without Cyber Trust

June 28, 2018  |  By Sauvik Das

A recent article by The New York Times examined seven Facebook patents that hold alarming new surveillance powers and asked whether they indicated future directions by the popular social media channel. Among the patents are the ability to analyze facial expressions as users read their feeds, tools to predict major life events (such as death), analyze sleep, and learn whether one actually watches ads on TV or mutes them. The company responded that patent applications should not be interpreted as future product plans and that most of the technology "has not been included in any of our products, and never will be,” said Allen Lo, a Facebook vice president and deputy general counsel, to the The New York Times. Still, privacy advocates worry and warn that free services are never truly "free."


Asst. Professor Sauvik Das: "Many large tech companies have filed creepy patents to use your personal data (e.g., your online posts and what you say in your home) to infer sensitive information about you and your loved ones (such as, when you might die or when your kids are misbehaving). Few of these patents will result in real products. Often, these companies file patents preemptively before making any product decisions. However, these patents illustrate a more concerning point: while future consumer technologies will unlock a rich design space of application areas that should make our lives more enjoyable, they also will create a mass surveillance infrastructure that could irrevocably alter human behavior.


The perception of being watched can produce a chilling effect on human behavior. In an always-on, fully connected environment, people may never be alone. Their social interactions will be stilted by the knowledge that everything may be logged and later audited. People may never feel empowered to voice controversial or unpopular opinions. In turn, they may never be able to develop new ideas that spark larger movements. This could have disastrous effects for democratic societies that are founded on the notion of a free exchange of ideas.

A fully connected cyber-physical world is coming. It is imperative that we work towards both understanding the effects of these systems on human behavior and developing trustworthy protections against threats of mass surveillance in lockstep with any technical advances. The required efforts will be massive and work against market forces. But it’s important."


For further reading


More by the author(s)