Technological progress has radically transformed our concept of privacy. How we share information and display our identities has changed as we’ve migrated to the digital world.

As the Guardian states, “We now carry with us everywhere devices that give us access to all the world’s information, but they can also offer almost all the world vast quantities of information about us.” We are all leaving digital footprints as we navigate through the internet. While sometimes this information can be harmless, it’s often valuable to various stakeholders, including governments, corporations, marketers, and criminals.

The ethical debate around privacy is complex. The reality is that our definition and standards for privacy have evolved over time, and will continue to do so in the next few decades.

Implications of Emerging Technologies

Protecting privacy will only become more challenging as we experience the emergence of technologies such as virtual reality, the Internet of Things, brain-machine interfaces, and much more.

Virtual reality headsets are already gathering information about users’ locations and physical movements. In the future all of our emotional experiences, reactions, and interactions in the virtual world will be able to be accessed and analyzed. As virtual reality becomes more immersive and indistinguishable from physical reality, technology companies will be able to gather an unprecedented amount of data.

It doesn’t end there. The Internet of Things will be able to gather live data from our homes, cities and institutions. Drones may be able to spy on us as we live our everyday lives. As the amount of genetic data gathered increases, the privacy of our genes, too, may be compromised.

It gets even more concerning when we look farther into the future. As companies like Neuralink attempt to merge the human brain with machines, we are left with powerful implications for privacy. Brain-machine interfaces by nature operate by extracting information from the brain and manipulating it in order to accomplish goals. There are many parties that can benefit and take advantage of the information from the interface.

Marketing companies, for instance, would take an interest in better understanding how consumers think and consequently have their thoughts modified. Employers could use the information to find new ways to improve productivity or even monitor their employees. There will notably be risks of “brain hacking,” which we must take extreme precaution against. However, it is important to note that lesser versions of these risks currently exist, i.e., by phone hacking,  identify fraud, and the like.

A New Much-Needed Definition of Privacy

In many ways we are already cyborgs interfacing with technology. According to theories like the extended mind hypothesis, our technological devices are an extension of our identities. We use our phones to store memories, retrieve information, and communicate. We use powerful tools like the Hubble Telescope to extend our sense of sight. In parallel, one can argue that the digital world has become an extension of the physical world.

These technological tools are a part of who we are. This has led to many ethical and societal implications. Our Facebook profiles can be processed to infer secondary information about us, such as sexual orientation, political and religious views, race, substance use, intelligence, and personality. Some argue that many of our devices may be mapping our every move. Your browsing history could be spied on and even sold in the open market.

While the argument to protect privacy and individuals’ information is valid to a certain extent, we may also have to accept the possibility that privacy will become obsolete in the future. We have inherently become more open as a society in the digital world, voluntarily sharing our identities, interests, views, and personalities.

“The question we are left with is, at what point does the tradeoff between transparency and privacy become detrimental?”

There also seems to be a contradiction with the positive trend towards mass transparency and the need to protect privacy. Many advocate for a massive decentralization and openness of information through mechanisms like blockchain.

The question we are left with is, at what point does the tradeoff between transparency and privacy become detrimental? We want to live in a world of fewer secrets, but also don’t want to live in a world where our every move is followed (not to mention our every feeling, thought and interaction). So, how do we find a balance?

Traditionally, privacy is used synonymously with secrecy. Many are led to believe that if you keep your personal information secret, then you’ve accomplished privacy. Danny Weitzner, director of the MIT Internet Policy Research Initiative, rejects this notion and argues that this old definition of privacy is dead.

From Witzner’s perspective, protecting privacy in the digital age means creating rules that require governments and businesses to be transparent about how they use our information. In other terms, we can’t bring the business of data to an end, but we can do a better job of controlling it. If these stakeholders spy on our personal information, then we should have the right to spy on how they spy on us.

The Role of Policy and Discourse

Almost always, policy has been too slow to adapt to the societal and ethical implications of technological progress. And sometimes the wrong laws can do more harm than good. For instance, in March, the US House of Representatives voted to allow internet service providers to sell your web browsing history on the open market.

More often than not, the bureaucratic nature of governance can’t keep up with exponential growth. New technologies are emerging every day and transforming society. Can we confidently claim that our world leaders, politicians, and local representatives are having these conversations and debates? Are they putting a focus on the ethical and societal implications of emerging technologies? Probably not.

We also can’t underestimate the role of public awareness and digital activism. There needs to be an emphasis on educating and engaging the general public about the complexities of these issues and the potential solutions available. The current solution may not be robust or clear, but having these discussions will get us there.

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Raya is an entrepreneur and science communicator. She is the co-founder of Intelligent Optimism, a social media movement that serves to get people excited about the future in a rational way. Raya is interested in the ethical and existential implications of exponential technologies on society.