In honor of the 25th anniversary of the World Wide Web, the Pew Research Center has released a series of reports about how digital technology will impact the way we live in 2025. The latest in this series takes a look at the future of privacy and how it will evolve over the next decade.
Pew canvassed more than 2,500 experts and asked if they thought there would be a reliable and trusted privacy infrastructure by 2025, what they saw as the 2025 reality and how the public norms about privacy would be different.
The experts were split: 55 percent said there would be no accepted privacy rights infrastructure, 45 percent said there would be. While themes emerged on both sides of the issue, the experts largely agreed that online life is public by its very nature. An anonymous responder even pointed out that “privacy will be the new taboo and will not be appreciated or understood by upcoming generations.”
Indeed, one of the themes among those who didn’t think there would be an accepted privacy infrastructure was that public living would become the default. Professor and research scientist Kate Crawford believes that there will be an increase of boutique services offering privacy and encryption as a premium feature, wherein privacy is only available for those who can afford it.
“This is the creation of privacy as a luxury good. It also has the unfortunate effect of establishing a new divide: the privacy rich and the privacy poor,” she says.
According to Bryan Alexander, a futurist and senior fellow at the National Institute of Technology in Liberal Education, there are too many government and business interests vested in the lack of privacy infrastructure. Clifford Lynch, the executive director for the Coalition for Networked Information, says business and government have practically conspired to eliminate consumer privacy.
“[I]t’s too convenient and too profitable for all parties involved,” Lynch says. “Today, it is almost impossible for consumers to opt out of the corporate side of this data collection and tracking because it is so pervasive.”
The experts also expect the Internet of things to make things worse and enable “people’s homes, workplaces, and the objects around them will ‘tattle’ on them.” One anonymous respondent wrote: “As long as greed plays a role in our society, it will always be dominant in how policy makers and corporations treat the individual. There will be less privacy and more access to everything, including your DNA.”
Those who were more optimistic about the establishment of a trusted and reliable privacy arrangement expect the development of new tools that enable consumers to negotiate with corporations and work around governments. In fact, according to Doc Searls, director of ProjectVRM at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, the new privacy infrastructure will become available in the next three to five years.
“[It] will come from new technological approaches that enable individuals and organizations to operate in full privacy without fear of surveillance,” he said.
Senior researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society David Weinberger believes the new infrastructure will emerge because it has to. “Unfortunately, the incentives are unequal: There is a strong incentive to enable strong privacy for transactions, but much less for enabling individuals to control their own info.” He added that he expects we’ll become more forgiving when people do stupid things. “When your walls are paper, that is what you have to do.”
Ultimately, the experts agree that public living will become the default and consumers will just have to adjust. Stewart Baker, a partner at Washington law firm Steptoe & Johnson, called security a “pain in the butt” that hampers innovation. “Almost everything we are shocked and worried about—including all the things we are saying the government should never do — will be commonplace by 2025. And, it will not really bother us that much. Privacy is the most malleable of expectations.”