I work for a resource management agency. Last year, I attended a government-mandated class on the use of computers during work hours. The instructor pointed out that emails that leave our agency's network are being scanned for content. Our Internet usage is also being monitored. What they are looking for was left vague.
On the surface this doesn't seem pernicious, but there is certainly opportunity for abuse.
Ironically, a major part of my job involves the use of real-time monitoring technologies to improve resource management. I often talk about the advantages of this type of automation, but probably short-change the discussion of potential problems. One of these disadvantages is the loss of privacy.
Recently, my colleagues and I have been examining the feasibility of using real-time monitoring technologies to improve living conditions in remote rural locations. For example, if advanced "green" innovations are used, real-time monitoring can help ensure sustainability and can assist with troubleshooting.
This type of monitoring involves something akin to smart meters. An article in Time magazine explains:
"[Smart meters], millions of which have been deployed nationwide, wirelessly transmit [real-time] information about household energy use to utilities. The system is designed to cut costs in two ways: It eliminates the need to send out meter readers, and it provides real-time consumption data, which enables utilities to charge lower rates during off-peak hours."
But smart meters are not popular with all customers. For example, tea party adherents in Cleveland, Ohio, have complained that the meters are a breach of privacy. And as sensors and communication devices get more varied and sophisticated, the application of these technologies is spreading to other types of monitoring.
Loss of privacy is an issue we all need to take a hard look at. Monitoring energy use is one thing, but monitoring technologies have the potential to be invasive. Various types of real-time monitors will soon be placed throughout our homes, our cars, and our bodies, with much of the information stored in databases and available over the Internet.
For example, with GPS units in our cellphones and cars, it is suddenly possible to monitor our exact location and movement in real time. Hospitals can now attach real-time monitors to their patients, even if they are not currently residing in their facility. The goal is to improve health care. But the application of these monitoring devices could allow employers to see whether we are really ailing.
Lest you think you are safe in your own backyard, real-time aerial images can now be obtained using remote-control model airplanes and helicopters. While these tools are now largely used by the military drones, for example and for improving resource management, they certainly have the potential to be misused.
And what happens to all this information? One possible repository will be here in Utah. A $2 billion facility is currently being constructed near Point of the Mountain by the National Security Agency.
According to Wired magazine: "Its purpose: to intercept, decipher, analyze, and store vast swaths of the world's communications. ... Flowing through its servers and routers and stored in near bottomless databases will be all forms of communication, including the complete contents of private emails, cellphone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data."
Need we worry? How important is our personal privacy?
R. Dennis Hansen is a civil engineer working as a planner for a government resource agency. He lives in Orem.