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Ten things impacting the world: impact on society

In January of 2017, the sales of George Orwell’s novel 1984 spiked, climbing to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list (a 9,500 percent increase in sales). Its newfound popularity was based on comparisons made between the dystopian novel and the current widening schism between media and government relations.

The book is, in essence, a powerful political statement about the impact of an omnipresent government that uses surveillance and propaganda to support an all-powerful “Big Brother.”

The concept of Big Brother is scary because he uses technology to monitor every single citizen all of the time. Fiction became fact in December of 2005, when it was revealed that a U.S. government agency had been monitoring citizens’ phone calls and Internet communications for years, without permission to do so.

As we become more connected, we become easier to “watch.”

We leave data traces all over cyberspace—from posting on Facebook to making online purchases, sending texts, video surveillance footage, and even the energy consumed in our homes. These make up our digital shadows. As we connect to the “Internet of Everything,” our digital shadows will only grow.

Cookies store personal data in forms. Companies build user profiles based on our preferences, which makes us easier to sell to. And they do this without consent. Consumers are willing to give up a privacy in exchange for convenience on a daily basis.

Soon, our appliances (like our devices) will be capable of spying on us.

AI-powered virtual assistants like Alexa and Google Home are always on and always willing to listen. Powered by Amazon Echo, a voice-controlled smart speaker, Alexa, responds to simple voice commands.  Once she “hears” you, she shares what you’ve said with Amazon servers in order to process a response. For the skeptical, Alexa is an always-on surveillance device that is capable of storing “conversations” indefinitely.

Many companies like Amazon are the gatekeepers of private information—which raises the question: how much control do we actually have over our own personal information?

As the smart home becomes more established in our lives, thousands of products will integrate with Alexa. Connected microphones will be ubiquitous. Whirlpool is integrating Alexa with its smart-home appliances like the washing machine, stove, and refrigerator. They will have the power to record and transmit data—as demonstrated when Samsung admitted that its voice-controlled smart TVs could capture personal conversations.

When we share information with a third party or a device, do we lose privacy protection rights? In the U.S., can Alexa plead the Fifth Amendment? This very topic is under discussion after Alexa was used to help authorities expand a homicide investigation to include a new kind of evidence: the conversation overhead by an Amazon Echo smart speaker.

The Echo’s latest feature is called “Drop In,” which enables users to turn on a microphone and camera on someone else’s device and instantly begin to broadcast. Technologies like these are shifting the boundaries between what is public and what is private information.

We can be tracked and traced, and now we can be rated as well.

Social credit systems rate citizens

Honest Shanghai, a rating app for citizens in Shanghai, is right out of an episode of Black Mirror. One of many social credit systems run by local governments, it is part of China’s goal to establish a nationwide social credit system by 2020.

Based on 3,000 items of public information collected from various government sites, Honest Shanghai gives citizens a “Public Credit Score.” Scores are very good, good, or bad. Those with a very good score enjoy more government services or perks, like discounted flights or lower interest rates for loans. Citizens who score badly might have problems getting access to certain services and could, in the future, become outcasts living on the fringes of society.

Although Honest Shanghai is based on government records, the plan is to incorporate data from companies and social media. For example, the Sesame Credit is a social credit scoring system based on Alibaba’s database of 400 million users and their personal information.

In both cases, overtones to Big Brother are obvious (and disconcerting).

And they beget the overriding question: As the government watches, who is watching the government?

The implications of an extremely connected, automated, and technology-driven society are complex, relevant, and very compelling.

This series has been a review of the top trends and technologies that I feel will have the most profound impact on society and each of us as individuals.

I hope you have enjoyed it.

Mark Barrenechea

Mark J. Barrenechea is OpenText's Vice Chairman, Chief Executive Officer and Chief Technology Officer. A prominent thought leader, he has extensive experience in information technology and his vision is to enable the digital world to help transform organizations.

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