The other day Peter blogged about the immense vulnerability created by the Internet of Things. His comments have given me to think about the connections that crawl spider-like over our entire landscape, both physical and mental, and the weaknesses they expose.
Our privacy is being eroded at a rate that would have appalled Winston Smith.
The Internet of Your Things
This was Peter’s starting point; isn’t anybody worried about setting up your home appliances so that they’ll be easy to hack into? Well, no, not yet. What about the likelihood that they’ll be used as a back door into your computer and all your data? No, that doesn’t seem to bother anyone either. Yet.
Our younger daughter treats “Alexa” like a family friend. Does it bother her that there’s a device in her living room which is by definition always listening, and which may be sending the results of its eavesdropping God knows where? Oh, no. Her smartphone already does that, you see.
And it’s inconceivable that she should give up the convenience of the smartphone.
The Self-Appointed Censors
The last couple of years have taught me a lot about the dangers of depending on other people’s software for a platform or a network. The censorship power of privately owned networks like Facebook and Twitter has been revealed, and it’s not pretty. Whether it’s Mark Zuckerberg promising that his company will develop AI algorithms to restrict ‘hate speech’ (and he gets to define what that is) or Twitter shadow-banning a conservative account, or Google secretly fixing search results, the social media giants are showing their muscle in ways that ought to alarm all of us – whether or not we are the ones suffering directly.
Because ultimately, we all suffer from a system in which the most powerful stifle free speech and robust debate.
Lucky us; we’re getting totalitarian rulers who know better than we do what we should think, do and say – and we didn’t even have to vote for them!
The Lynch Mob Effect
We all know how this works: someone gets designated Incorrect Thinker of the Day and the Twitterverse piles on and unless the designated victim is independently wealthy or works for someone with cojones, his life immediately gets much, much worse. Enough worse to intimidate a lot of other people into silence. And even if your character doesn’t lose his livelihood, he may still get to weather death threats to himself and family, mobs in the front yard, and plenty of other things that I certainly would find intimidating.
Convenience over security
I’m as bad as the rest of us about valuing convenience over security; I may not invite Alexa into the living room or have a Facebook account, but I use email to write to my friends; I shop and research online whenever possible; I am, for heaven’s sake, posting this rant online! When I do think about it, I rely on being too old, too unimportant, and too boring to attract attention. Where’s the fun in Twitter-mobbing someone nobody’s ever heard of? What’s the point of collecting data on somebody’s Internet use when all you get is the url’s for a bunch of writing and fiberart sites?
In short, I’m counting on the Masters and the Mob having no motive to go after me.
And when it’s put that clearly, it doesn’t seem like all that much protection, does it?
That’s the title of a novel by Gillian Bradshaw, published thirty years ago and set in fifth-century Constantinople. One wouldn’t expect it to have much relevance to this frighteningly interconnected new world. But it is a salutary reminder – for people like me – of how easy it is to be made a target. The protagonist is a weaver. A working woman. A skilled craftswoman, but unimportant in the lives of the rich and powerful… until a stranger commissions her to weave a robe of imperial purple.
A robe whose dimensions would never fit Theodosius, the current emperor.
And that simply, her life is turned upside down. One side may execute her for being part of a plot against the emperor; the other may assassinate her to keep her from revealing her commission.
A modest proposal
Today, Imperial Purple reminds me of the many ways in which trouble can find you even if you weren’t looking for it. Sometimes I have a hard time thinking of rocks to throw at my characters, and there’s a rich supply in current events for anybody who’s writing contemporary or near-future fiction.
What if somebody starts setting houses on fire by attacking their “smart” thermostats and other controllers? Or if you just want to drive your character crazy rather than killing them, turn the freezer off? Run the dishwasher nonstop? Cut off the hot water in winter? (Guaranteed disaster, this, for any household that includes teenage girls.)
Raise the ante by looking at bigger systems: Did the Navy just install AI-controlled thermostats to fight climate change? What happens if somebody uses one to seize control of a nuclear sub?
Or raise it by making the threats more personal. Get a character fired? Put him in fear for his life? His family’s lives? Send him up against an “intelligence community” with its own agenda? Strip away his privacy and point a mob at him? Get him blackmailed over an innocuous statement than has suddenly become Incorrect? Make him face demands for a public apology over an innocent action? Publicize donations he thought were private, and then rake him over the coals for daring to support the wrong causes? Make him choose between firing an innocent person and seeing his entire company crumble, putting thousands out of work? All these things are even easier to write than the internet-of-things sabotage, because they have already been done and are being repeated daily.
Take away any platform he might use to reply or defend himself. If he makes the mistake of apologizing, have his antagonists double down on demands. Send him to a self-criticism session. Smear, slander, libel him. Publish lies on the front page and corrections on page B17 in the small print.
Those who allow evil to work through them have been throwing some impressive rocks at the rest of us, people. Maybe if we throw some of the same rocks at our characters, a few readers will question the social system that supports all this.
Or maybe not. There’s only one way to find out.