Unsurprisingly, privacy advocates have already begun expressing concern about Pokemon Go, which collects information about users’ movements: indeed, the whole point is predicated on tracking your movements. It collects other information, too — precisely:

“User’s Internet Protocol (IP) address, user agent, browser type, operating system, the web page that a User was visiting before accessing our Services, the pages or features of our Services to which a User browsed and the time spent on those pages or features, search terms, the links on our Services that a User clicked on, and other statistics.”

Should players be worried about how much of their privacy they’re sacrificing to large, unaccountable corporations? Indeed, is Pokemon Go a giant government surveillance conspiracy (for which there is actually some evidence)? No, not really — you can play in peace. Not so much because Pokemon Go isn’t a brilliant surveillance tool, but because your phone was already the most perfect surveillance device yet designed, before you loaded anything on it. Unlike landlines, mobile phones, if you keep yours with you 24/7, constantly provide a record of your exact whereabouts — one of the reasons that data retention argument that it’s just about keeping what law enforcement agencies used to be able to get from phone companies but are being denied by the march of technology is especially risible.

And that’s before your call records, your phone browsing records, your locational and search data in Google Maps, whatever geolocation data you forget to prevent apps from collecting — indeed whatever information you’re dumb enough to allow apps to collect about you. Genuine apps, that is, not malware masquerading as apps. Or apps designed purposefully as surveillance tools, for domestic or “romantic” purposes.

So, in the scheme of things, don’t be too worried about Pokemon Go. Chances are a large number of companies already have loads of information on you and your kids from your phone already, even if you’re careful and try to use IP-based telephony for calls, not traditional mobile reception.

You might be more concerned about the so-called “internet of things”, the relentlessly hyped drive to connect ordinary household objects to the internet for purported convenience (your TV, or the fridge that orders you milk, famously) or add connectivity to improve the performance and efficiency of personal functional objects such as implants (pacemakers) and health monitoring devices, as well as infrastructure uses such as energy management. All have a range of profound concerns (connected pacemakers can be hacked, with predictable consequences); the hacking of a thermostat to destroy a company’s electronic records in the brilliant Mr Robot was very plausible — before we reach the issue of privacy. The most serious, but by no means only, example is connected baby camera monitors (especially those owned by lazy, clueless parents) — they have notorious security problems that allow someone not merely to spy on your baby but even speak to her (the experience of one poor US toddler is detailed here). There are said to be websites dedicated to feeds from hacked baby cameras; Crikey decided not to go searching for them.

The wonder of the internet of things is that it makes the surveillance afforded by your phone look trivial, by constructing the kind of proper virtual panopticon of which surveillance advocates have long dreamed, in which even your home is no longer a sanctuary from surveillance but the centre of it, with your activities, consumption and even medical status all available to products manufacturers, the governments they readily co-operate with and, inevitably, the hackers and just plain curious who will exploit the security vulnerabilities or plain laziness of both to gain your info.

The next much-hyped revolution, driverless cars, promises an exciting new development — the panopticon will go with you when you travel. There’ll be no point leaving your mobile phone at home if you don’t want to be tracked — a driverless vehicle or even a highly autonomous vehicle (that is, one where you can still take control, which are appearing on public roads already) will necessarily track your road movements to the centimetre. Driverless cars will also know how many passengers you have, whether one’s a child, and record your speech (for purposes of learning where you want to go). So far, legislators have shown little interest in regulating the privacy issues around driverless vehicles, being more concerned with on-road safety and liability.

It will be exactly the same trade-off that has been at the heart of government and corporate surveillance right from the start of the internet — the convenience, enjoyment and productivity benefits of connectivity, traded off for handing over the kind of detail about your life that pre-internet companies and government probably didn’t even dream of. It’s the same trade-off that has driven Facebook and Google, right from the start, but which has since escaped from the confines of our desktop PCs, laptops and mobiles and is now spreading across every “thing” in the non-virtual world as it rapidly gets colonised by wireless connectivity.

And in our blithe indifference, most of us are as toddlers, constantly spied on and occasionally terrified by an unknown watcher.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey