Speak Up for the Microphone

  • by Pete O'Brien
  • 07-25-2021

You know, the one in your phone. The phone that is turned off…
The Bill of Rights… We’ve all read it a hundred times, but go back and read it again, particularly the 4th, 5th and 6th Amendments. We all pretty much know the key clauses by heart (if you’ve watched cop shows in the last 25 years, you can probably recite them backwards).
4th: The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures
5th: nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself
6th: a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury 
But, why does it feel like it’s all being whittled away?
A while ago a good friend was working on his car’s engine; he called another friend to talk over possible options to address a recurring problem. During the call they discussed the replacement of certain items in the engine with non-standard parts. He did not search the internet for those parts. Just a few hours later in the day he began to receive ads for various brands of those parts.
Perhaps it was serendipity. Or perhaps it was, as various major social media and search engine companies assert, simply that there have developed the software that, when used with the data they have accumulated on each of us, allows them to accurately guess what you want or need.
And perhaps, someday, with the help of AI, every single conversation will be scanned by various systems as it passes through this or that communications company and recognizable words will be used as cues to send advertisements.
Technology has already been fielded that allows “all this stuff” to be not simply tracked, but integrated, relating each thing to the other. The phrase “internet of things” seems to have fallen out of use, but the idea is moving forward smartly. Refrigerators are already connected to the internet and set up to act as Wi-Fi hubs. One advertises that you can access smart devices in your house, set lights, speak to and view people at the front door, and has internal cameras so you can check what you have while you’re at the store. Soon the refrigerators will not only keep track of what you have but what you need, order on line and arrange for pick-up or delivery. It will also keep track of the items you place in it and their rate of consumption, and recommend when food may be ready for disposal.  Now, imagine your trash bins keeping track of what goes in the trash and what goes in the recycle bin. And if your trash versus recycle numbers don’t match? Should the state tax you for failing to properly recycle? Smart trash cans are already on the market.
Many (most) cars already - automatically - provide data to the manufacturer about virtually everything that you do with your car. This data could be merged with your GPS data - let’s say every year when you get your safety sticker, collated and analyzed by the state. A state road use tax could then be levied against you. Further, the system could determine how often you speed, how often you failed to come to a complete stop at a light or stop sign, etc., etc. And you were weaving that Saturday night in May. Were you drunk? You would receive a “bill” from the state that would need be paid before you get your safety sticker.
The technology for all this - and much more - is already on the street. It’s only a matter of time before it is integrated. The question is: is this technology pulling apart our Constitutional rights?
Imagine in 1980 talking to your brother on the phone and saying something nasty about the President. And the next day your phone service was cut off for a year.
Yet, the current administration has argued social media companies should censor users and defends this action stating that the social media companies are both private (hence this isn’t the government denying anyone tier rights) and two that it’s necessary to stop the spread of misinformation.
The increasing use of ever more sophisticated software and hardware will allow various tech firms to build complex models of each one of us, our day by day behavior, our spending and consumption, our hobbies, our friends, and associates, eventually our health status, even our beliefs. And all done with increasing speed. What might have taken hours or days now takes minutes or even seconds. What if you go on line and look for a copy of Mein Kampf? Are you a Nazi or an historian? Maybe you shouldn’t read that book. Suddenly, your credit card won’t work. You’re not buying that book today. 
And why stop there? Maybe you fit a profile for a potential criminal; then all gas stations more than 25 miles from your house will reject your credit card. You may only be allowed you to buy 5 gallons of gas per week. And no more than $50 in cash per week.  And no flights out of state. For the good of society. And no trial for you; “They” said so.
All this is already ongoing to a greater or lesser degree in China; the technology exists. As Artificial Intelligence advances, this will become ever more probable. 
Ask yourself this simple question: who gets to decide what I read, what I eat, what I watch, what I say or do? The argument is that the tech companies are “private concerns” and therefore free to act; yet how different are they from the phone company of 40 or even 30 years ago?
This will get worse before it gets better.
Unless we act. The social media companies need to be reined in, and by law forced to act like the utilities they’ve become. Further, federal agencies (not simply the Intelligence Community and DOD, but also the Marshalls, the FBI, all the scores of various US Government police, to include the burgeoning capital police force, and the IRS) need to be forced to remain well inside the Constitution. State and local governments and law enforcement agencies need to be reined in as well. Finally, corporate collection of private data needs to be placed in a box. In all cases, government at every level, and police and security forces, and private concerns of all types, need to be barred from holding information of individuals for longer than a certain limited period of time, perhaps 12 months, without express approval from the individual.
In the information age, we need to remember that that information is ours.