Should We Fear the Era of Ubiquitous Computing?

Eye Looking Over Person On Computer

More and more, technology is becoming an integral part of our lives. In a not so distant future, there will be a major convergence of entire industries in the fields of media, consumer electronics, telecommunications, and information technology. But the approaching wave of the technological revolution will affect us more directly, in all aspects of our lives – it is becoming apparent that our future will be characterized by the appearance of computing devices everywhere and anywhere. This concept is known as ubiquitous computing. Ubiquitous computing encompasses a wide range of existing technological platforms and emerging research topics, including distributed systems, ad hoc sensor networks, mobile computing, location-based services, context-aware computing, wireless networks, machine-to-machine (M2M) communication, artificial intelligence, and human-computer interaction.

Case in point, the functionality in smart mobile devices is constantly expanding into previously unthinkable dimensions. Wi-Fi positioning systems (WPS) and GPS can deliver location services as exact as 10 meters in an outdoor setting. Short-range radio interfaces (Bluetooth, ZigBee, Z-Wave, IrDA, etc.) are creating personal area networks (PANs) that better facilitate intrapersonal communication. Mobile phones can now be employed as personal base stations or “access points” that connect a universe of “smart devices”. As it relates to the unbanked or under-banked, technologies such as Near Field Communication (NFC) and Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) are allowing more individuals and entrepreneurs to participate in the ever-burgeoning mobile economy. From the perspective of e-health and remote patient monitoring, mobile watches (essentially wearable computers) are able to capture a user’s health data and, if necessary, transmit vital statistics back to a medical center via telemetry. In this regard, new qualities and functions are developing due to the proximity to the body that a normal mobile phone could not previously achieve.

Former IBM Chairman Lou Gerstner conceptualized a “post-PC era” where he foresaw, “…a billion people interacting with a million e-businesses through a trillion interconnected intelligent devices.” Smartphones with high-speed data connections, geo-location positioning, and voice recognition capabilities that contextually interact with their environment are the first indicators of this type of ubiquitous virtual network of technical devices and day-to-day objects. Such developments are only now being realized due to rapid advances in technology. For example, semiconductor technology has progressed to a point where complex functions have been miniaturized; so as to obtain drastically reduced form factors — weight, size and energy consumption. The field of “Body Area Networks” has broken new ground whereby the human body can be employed as a transmission channel for low voltage electromagnetic signals. Touch, gesture and other tactile interfaces can initiate individualized communications, and be deployed for user authentication, personalized device configuration, or billing of products and services.

While determining concrete applications for such technologies is a difficult task, the potential for objects to communicate with each other, use available Internet services, and access large online data stores, is simply mind-blowing. The field of ubiquitous computing, and its array of technologies, is creating linkages between the mundane world and everyday objects, between products and services and capital assets, and between e-commerce platforms and supply chain management systems. They are effectually removing human beings as intermediaries between the real and the virtual world. As a result, new business models are emerging that are providing incremental benefits to manufacturers, suppliers, and customers. More importantly, we are seeing the ultimate creation of a plethora of new services such as the persistent personalization or customization of products throughout their entire life cycle.

Despite the obvious social and economic value of ubiquitous computing, particular attention needs to be focused on the issues of security and privacy. The promise of ubiquitous computers is accompanied by a broadening of the traditional Internet problem of “online history” (i.e. the collection of online user activity into big data sets) to include an even more extensive “offline history”. As such, whereas the online surveillance of individuals has been restricted to Internet usage, there will now be no clear delineation between “online” and “offline” data collection in a world of pervasive smart objects. Without a doubt, this will make the resulting data much more valuable. But who will be deriving value from this data (or more so profiting)? Whereas previously a limited profile of an individual could be “built” through data analytics, a much more comprehensive view of this person and his/her daily activities can be obtained in the ubiquitous reality. The question is: Do we really want others to have this much insight into our lives?

In his lecture, “The Ethicist’s and the Lawyer’s New Clothes: The Law and Ethics of Smart Clothes,” Glenn Cohen asserts that the ubiquity of computers threatens to “disrupt the place of refuge.” He warned that even when we switch off our mobile phones, given the prevalence of smart devices, “we squeeze out the space for living a life.” He concludes, “Lots of people have things they want to do and try but wouldn’t if everything was archived.” Should we expect the government and the rule of law to protect us in the ubiquitous world? In the post-Snowden era, we would be foolish to harbor such false expectations. Taking into consideration that most online surveillance activities are undetectable, the odds of anyone securing a legal claim against corporations or governments are slim to none.

In an ideal world, having business responsible for baking robust privacy controls into their products seems to be an optimal solution. But this means that we have to be able to trust the companies (a tall order in my estimation). Most recently, the technical community, in the form of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), has renewed its commitment to building greater security into Internet protocols such as HTTPS and through the use of Transport Layer Sockets (TLS) and Perfect Forward Secrecy (PFS). However, there are significant limitations in the use of technology-only fixes to enhance privacy and security on the Internet (and ubiquitous computing will be no exception). Operational practices, laws, and other similar factors also matter to a large extent. And at the end of the day, no degree of communication security helps you if you do not trust the party you are communicating with or the infrastructure and devices you are using. With all that has happened over the last 24 months in terms of pervasive online surveillance, should we be fearful of what the ubiquitous era holds for us? I wouldn’t necessarily say that I’m afraid, but neither am I brimming with unbridled confidence.

Mind you, I am not by any means a pessimist. There is no doubt that ubiquitous computing will provide vast opportunities for improvement in the realms of our political, commercial, and personal existence. However, the multitude of concerns around governance, standards, integration, interoperability, security, and privacy will necessitate an effective multi-stakeholder approach. The demand will be for unprecedented collaboration among the technical community, academia, business, civil society, and government. My fear is that the concerns of the end user will be largely ignored amidst the the jostling for position by the others players.

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