Security

Can we talk before we arrive in our technical dystopia?

As consumers continue to freely give away their personal information to corporate giants looking to monetise such information, and the extent of government surveillance across the world is still being learned, Alastair MacGibbon says it is time to have a rational conversation about technology's impact on society.

Whether our continuing embracing of technology takes us towards a future more akin to Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, Orwell's 1984, something far less dystopian, Alastair MacGibbon, general manager of security with Dimension Data Australia and a former federal agent with the Australian Federal Police, says that society needs to have a rational discussion on whether the technology-driven trade-offs we are making are worth it.

Speaking to TechRepublic, MacGibbon said that while embracing technology in the aftermath of the industrial revolution helped society create more leisure time, that may no longer be the case.

"In my view, we did do an awful lot of stuff where technology was beneficial ... and it did liberate us from some of the more mundane and physical chores," he said.

"That was good, and then what's happened is we've brought on personal electronic devices that we think are in the same category, that somehow think they are saving us time and freedom and services we didn't otherwise have.

"I actually think we have become so reliant upon these bits of technology, unwittingly we've lost a lot of skills we would have otherwise had in the past, we've lost our ability to do certain things, and now we spend so much time in our day maintaining and tweaking these things."

MacGibbon believes that technology is now making the average person more stressed, encroaching on leisure time, and reducing happiness.

"Is it really good what we are doing? I suspect the answer is no. Can we ever go back? No."

"Will we wake up one day and realise how far down that path we've gone?"

One of the roots of this issue, according to MacGibbon, is consumers not paying attention to what they are giving up when they use services considered "free", but are actually in the business of mining personal data.

"We talk about how everyone from criminals to nation states are stealing information — and by the way, they are — and at the same time, we've got this almost addiction towards social media where we feel compelled to give out a whole range of information about ourselves that previously we kept private," he said.

"Unfortunately, I don't actually think that's actually the thought process that goes on by people, I don't think they realise how much their information is worth to nation states, to criminals, and to those companies providing a "free" service."

"They don't realise that there is a beast, that their friends are equally part of, they are actually a small piece of a very large monetisation machine using big data that is actually their data that they share between friends."

Another issue that MacGibbon sees is that consumers are not fully reading the terms and conditions and privacy policies of the companies they interact with, to understand what will happen to their data.

A prime example occurred over the weekend where an F-Secure blog post on how a Xiaomi handset sends its phone number, IMSI, and IMEI back to Xiaomi servers to allow iMessage-like functionality, led to headlines insisting that the Chinese company is uploading user data without permission.

"We'd be pretty dull people if we all read terms and conditions, especially the 148 pages on the iPhone when you are updating your iPhone software," MacGibbon said.

"I'm a pretty fast read and I'm not dumb, but I can guarantee you that I haven't read the vast bulk of terms and conditions I've agreed to as an informed consumer. And then, do the terms and conditions truly reflect the activities of the company?"

"This is the problem with data, of course, it's a problem with the whole consumer electronics space to start with — I assume my smartphone does a certain thing, now it probably does those certain things I assume, but I don't know what else it does as well."

"We've become a society that just accepts that these things do what they say on the box, and unfortunately we are not even reading what it says is happening on the box."

In the quest for the latest beta invite to a new cool service, or in the naive bliss of just clicking the accept button in an install process, MacGibbon said that consumers don't care if data is taken, so long as they do not see the act of it being taken.

"We want that instant gratification, whatever the service is that we are chasing, and we are trading off a huge amount for that," he said.

"What I think we haven't had, is a proper discussion about what is the trade-off because there is always a trade-off for everything we do in life."

"It's time we just started a rational conservation about what the implications are of the path that we are going down, so that we can try to minimise the level of societal damage."

MacGibbon, along with Dr Katina Michael and Bernard Keane, will be arguing that we are becoming enslaved by technology in the next iQ2 debate. Facing them, will be the trio of ethicist Peter Singer, and journalistic pair Antony Loewenstein and Asher Wolf.

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Some would say that it is a long way from software engineering to journalism, others would correctly argue that it is a mere 10 metres according to the floor plan.During his first five years with CBS Interactive, Chris started his journalistic advent...

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